Liberal Arts (2012 film)

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Liberal Arts
A man and a woman walking along a path surrounded trees with red leaves
Poster for Liberal Arts
Directed byJosh Radnor
Produced byBrice Dal Farra
Claude Dal Farra
Jesse Hara
Lauren Munsch
Josh Radnor
Screenplay byJosh Radnor
Music byBen Toth
CinematographySeamus Tierney
Edited byMichael R. Miller
Strategic Motion Ventures
BCDF Pictures
Tom Sawyer Entertainment
Distributed byIFC Films
Release date
  • January 22, 2012 (2012-01-22) (Sundance)
  • September 14, 2012 (2012-09-14) (United States: limited)
Running time
97 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.1 million[2]

Liberal Arts is a 2012 American comedy-drama film. The second film directed by, written by, and starring Josh Radnor, it tells the story of 35-year-old Jesse (Radnor) who has a romantic relationship with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old college student.[3] The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in January 2012.[4]


Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old college admissions officer in New York City who loves literature and language, but is newly single and dissatisfied with his life and career. He believes that the happiest time of his life was the years at his unnamed Ohio liberal arts college, where he could study uninterrupted, surrounded by others like him. Peter Hoberg (Jenkins), his former English professor, invites Jesse back to the college to attend Peter's retirement ceremony. Jesse meets 19-year-old Zibby (Olsen), a sophomore studying drama and the daughter of Peter's friends.

After the retirement dinner, Jesse stumbles upon a dorm party where he runs into Zibby. They agree to have coffee together the next day. He spends the afternoon with Zibby and they walk around the campus discussing life, books, and music. He also encounters his old romantics teacher, Judith Fairfield (Janney)—a woman he has long admired—and meets the eccentric Nat (Efron), and Dean (Magaro), a brilliant but depressed student who, like Jesse, always carries a book with him.[5] Before Jesse leaves, Zibby asks to stay in touch; they become pen pals and become closer via handwritten letters. Meanwhile, Peter feels lost ahead of his upcoming retirement, and goes to the dean to ask to stay on. The dean replies that the faculty have already hired his replacement.

Zibby invites Jesse back to campus, hinting that she has feelings for him. Jesse has concerns about the 16-year age gap, but agrees. They spend time together and kiss. When Peter sees them together, however, he warns Jesse about living in the past. Zibby confesses her feelings to Jesse and asks him to sleep with her; he agrees, but changes his mind after she admits that she is a virgin. Zibby is insulted and hurt and asks him to leave. Jesse goes to a bar where he meets Fairfield again. They have a one-night stand, but afterwards she tells him to grow up and kicks him out. Meanwhile, Zibby goes to a party and kisses a classmate. Jesse leaves without seeing Zibby again, but says goodbye to Peter.

Jesse returns to New York and, some months later, writes to Zibby again. He apologizes for hurting her, says that he misses her and credits her for helping him to grow. He meets and starts dating Ana (Reaser), a bookseller his own age with a similar love for books. After Jesse helps avert Dean's suicide by overdose, he advises the young man to stop hiding from life within books. Jesse goes to see Zibby and apologizes to her again. She says that she had hoped to take a shortcut to adulthood through a relationship with Jesse, and that she understands that what he did was the right thing. Jesse goes back home and renews his correspondence with Zibby. The film ends with Zibby lying down reading Songs of Innocence and of Experience which she received via courier from Jesse, and Ana lying on Jesse's chest, them happily talking about growing old.



The majority of scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Kenyon is the real life alma mater of both Radnor and co-star Allison Janney.


Liberal Arts received generally positive reviews and has a rating of 70% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 104 reviews with an average score of 6.6 out of 10. The consensus states: "While it's hard not to wish it had a little more bite, Liberal Arts ultimately succeeds as a good-natured -- and surprisingly clever -- look at the addictive pull of nostalgia for our youth."[6] The film also has a score of 55 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 24 reviews, indicating "Mixed or average reviews".[7]

Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film 3 and a half out of 4 stars and stated in his review:

"Liberal Arts is an almost unreasonable pleasure about a jaded New Yorker who returns to his alma mater in Ohio and finds that his heart would like to stay there. It's the kind of film that appeals powerfully to me; to others, maybe not so much.
There is a part of me that will forever want to be walking under autumn leaves, carrying a briefcase containing the works of Shakespeare and Yeats and a portable chess set. I will pass an old tree under which once on a summer night I lay on the grass with a fragrant young woman and we quoted e.e. cummings back and forth. There is a word to explain why this particular film so appealed to me. Reader, that word is "escapism." If you understand why I used the word "reader" in just that way, you are possibly an ideal viewer for this movie."[8]


  1. ^ Liberal Arts at Box Office Mojo
  2. ^ "Liberal Arts (2012) - Financial Information". The Numbers.
  3. ^ "Film's plot". Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  4. ^ "2012 Sundance Film Festival". Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  5. ^ According to Radnor Archived May 5, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, the book Dean carries is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.
  6. ^ "Liberal Arts (2012)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  7. ^ "Liberal Arts Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved September 20, 2015.
  8. ^ Tallerico, Brian. "Liberal Arts Movie Review & Film Summary (2012)". Roger Ebert. Retrieved September 20, 2015.

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