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Liberal Arts is a 2012 Dramedy film directed by, written by, and starring Josh Radnor. The film also stars Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, John Magaro, Zac Efron and Elizabeth Reaser. Rounding up the cast are Kate Burton and Robert Desiderio as Susan and David, Zibby's parents. Gregg Edelman as Robert, Prof. Hoberg's former protegee and the current college dean. And Kristen Bush as Jesse's ex-girlfriend Leslie. Michael Weston also appears as Jesse's friend Miles, who was cut in the theatrical version but included in the DVD release.

As he somewhat lost his passion in life, Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), an admissions officer at a New York City post-secondary institution who loves English and literature, has a chance to find that passion again when he is invited to the retirement dinner of his second favorite Ohio University college professor, Peter Hoberg (Richard Jenkins), as his time there was when his life held the most passion. Jesse's encounters with five people there may determine if he does find that missing passion. They are: Hoberg, who is resisting the notion of retirement; Judith Fairfield (Allison Janney), Jesse's favorite professor, although for a different reason than his like of Hoberg; Nat (Zac Efron), a free spirit who navigates life at the institution on his own terms; undergraduate student Dean (John Magaro), who Jesse sees as a younger more destructive version of himself; and undergraduate student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), who is seemingly wise beyond her years and with whom Jesse embarks on a relationship despite their sixteen year age difference.

The film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 and was met with generally positive reviews.

Provides examples of:

  • Accidental Misnaming: Nat keeps calling Jesse "Ethan" during their first meeting.
  • An Aesop:
    • Life isn't a script. Our paths are not already set out in front of us to follow. Instead, when something in life happens, or when a set of circumstances occurs, where our life then goes is very much dependent on where we take the "yes, and..." How we answer "yes, and..." is what defines our lives.
    • Growing old is part of life, so enjoy youth while you still can. Make peace with your shortcomings. And growing old isn't necessarily bad.
    • Time is important so always think things through because you might ended up regretting things in the end.
  • Age-Gap Algebra: When Jesse is contemplating having a Relationship Upgrade with Zibby, he's seen calculating their sixteen-year age gap on a piece of paper. He only sees it as "passable" when he starts calculating the gap when she reaches her thirties.
  • Age-Gap Romance: The film follows the Unresolved Sexual Tension between 35 year-old Jesse and 19 year-old Zibby. He also had a one night stand with his former professor, who is at least twenty years his senior. Ultimately, he ends up with the more "age appropriate" (as he calls it) Ana.
  • All There in the Script: The name of Jesse's ex-girlfriend isn't mentioned in the film but the CBB lists it as Leslie.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: Midway throuth the film, Zibby laments how relationship has become so casual. Jesse assumed it as her regretting a past sexual encounter. Finding out that she's a virgin is what made Jesse realize that she's pushing too fast to have a relationship without thinking things first, which was the sign he needed to end their budding relationship.
  • And Starring: Elizabeth Reaser in the OBB.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Zibby via Love Letter. She laments that she wanted a mature gentleman suitor because she's constantly put off by her male schoolmates' immaturity, before telling Jesse directly that she wanted the mature gentleman to be him.
  • Arc Symbol: Books, which was even described almost word for word as such. They show up frequently and at least one is present in key scenes. Characters even comparing themselves or others, as well as where they or those people are in life, to literary terms (e.g. Zibby calling herself a "rough draft" and Jesse telling Dean that the latter's struggles will just be a "footnote" in his life).
  • Arc Words: Variations of "Please Say Yes" and "Don't Say No". Explanation 
  • Big Applesauce: Jesse lives in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Prof. Hoberg formerly lives in New York too, though where specifically is not mentioned.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Jesse becomes this to Dean after the latter takes a shine on him. This becomes instrumental when Dean reaches out to him after the Troubled Teen's Bungled Suicide.
  • Big Damn Reunion: Jesse heading back to his old college to attend Professor Hoberg's retirement party kickstarted the whole plot. He later has one again with Zibby.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Jesse was robbed of his dirty laundry at the start of the film, even chasing the thief on the streets of Brooklyn to no avail.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Jesse and Zibby did not get together, and although she did not take his rejection well at first, they ultimately reconciled and settled as friends. It's also implied that Jesse's positive outlook in life is starting to rub on Dean, meaning he'll likely avoid his suicidal tendencies from now on. And finally, Jesse ultimately finds happiness with Ana. However, his "relationship" with his favorite professor is strained, likely beyond repair. And there's also no clarification on what will happen to Prof. Hoberg now since the university refuses to hire him back.
  • Bland-Name Product: Although not mentioned by name, the "vampire book" that sparks an argument between the two main characters is based on Twilight and is titled "Lunar Moon" (based on Twilight's New Moon). This is likely done to avoid a Celebrity Paradox with Elizabeth Reaser, who is part of the movie adaptations.
  • Blond, Brunette, Redhead: Zibby is the Blond, Ana is the Brainy Brunette and Prof. Fairfield is the very Fiery Redhead.
  • Break His Heart to Save Him: Jesse ultimately did this to Zibby. Realizing that she still has her life ahead of her to be in an Age-Gap Romance with a man pushing middle age like him, he backs out on making their Relationship Upgrade official. She didn't take it well, but they eventually got better.
  • Brick Joke: Prof. Hoberg's love for his old school shirts.
  • Broken Pedestal:
    • Subverted. It appears that Jesse will get crushed when he finds out that his favorite teacher is now a very cynical person who doesn't believe in anything good about people anymore, but he isn't. In fact, he practically tells her that he'll still appreciate what he learned from her then instead of being disillusioned from what she is now.
    • Downplayed with Professor Hoberg. When Jesse hears the former sees the college as a "prison" he is obviously disappointed. His relationship with him remains intact though, unlike with Fairfield.
  • Bungled Suicide: According to Zibby, Dean attempted to kill himself the previous year. He does so again near the end of the film via overdose. When he comes into his senses, he calls Jesse who then calls the hospital for him.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Defied twice. The place where most of the film takes place in was shot at Kenyon College, the Alma Mater of both Jesse and Prof. Fairfield's actors, but the school itself was never named in the film. Likewise, the Twilight books are renamed due to Ana's actress being part of The Film of the Book.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Jesse writes his number in a book Dean is reading at the middle of the film, stating to call him when the former needs someone to talk to. It comes in handy after Dean attempted suicide by overdose.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Ana, the Hot Librarian at the beginning, is the one who'll end up with Jesse.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Zac Efron is having a great time playing to Nat's "out-in-the-clouds" personality.
  • Chick Magnet: Jesse has been involved or/and pined over by five women in the film. He starts the story breaking up with Leslie, spends most of it in an Unresolved Sexual Tension with Zibby, Zibby mentioning her mother having a crush on him, acting out on his college crush over his favorite professor Judith Fairfield, and Ana the librarian at the bookstore he frequents clearly likes him. He ultimately ends up with Ana.
  • Classical Music Is Cool: Zibby is a firm believer of this. She suggests Jesse to listen to them, who in turn gets to like them as well after listening to them gave him new outlook and perception. They bond over their new shared interest during the first Time Passes Montage.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Nat is presented as a Cloudcuckoo Lander Erudite Stoner, but he does make several valid points.
  • Coming of Age Story: The main plot of the movie is to getting terms with the fact that you will eventually grow old.
  • Cool Old Guy: Downplayed with Prof. Hoberg. He is warm, but he isn't always shown to be happy.
  • Covers Always Lie: One of the posters depict Prof. Fairfield giving a somewhat warm smile, implying she's a Cool Old Lady.
  • Cuddle Bug: Zibby offers Jesse a hug after having an intimate conversation, believing they would both feel better doing it than continue talking.
  • Cynical Mentor: Both Professors Hoberg and Fairfield in varying degrees. The former is pessimistic, while the latter is a Straw Nihilist.
  • Deconstruction: Pursuing an Age-Gap Romance is thoroughly analyzed by the film, showing potential issues one such relationship could face.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Because The Hero and the main female lead decided that they are Better as Friends.
  • Did Not Think This Through: Prof. Hoberg retires out of spite, not thinking about the bills he still have to pay.
  • Disappeared Dad: Dean stated that his mom raised him alone.
  • Downer Beginning: The first five minutes of the film sees Jesse getting robbed and breaking-up with his girlfriend.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: After being rejected by Jesse, an emotional Zibby heads to a Wild Teen Party and starts on a drinking spree.
  • The Eeyore: Dean and Prof. Fairfield are mostly scowling during much of the film. Prof. Hoberg has his jaded moments as well.
  • Emo Teen: Dean in spades. To the point of being suicidal.
  • Erotic Eating: Upon meeting Jesse in a bar after his fallout with Zibby, Professor Fairfield begins eating fries suggestively. Of course she's seducing him, which succeeds.
  • Erudite Stoner: Nat is heavily implied to be one.
  • Even the Guys Want Him: Nat blatantly stated that he really likes Jesse. Not in a gay kind of way, but still...
  • Falling-in-Love Montage: The first Time Passes Montage doubles as one, especially for Zibby. It's about the two leads writing letters comparing notes on classical literature until Zibby writes her final letter as an Anguished Declaration of Love.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Downplayed and Implied. David is shown to be supportive of Zibby's Improv shows but she laments that he isn't "totally cool" with her majoring in Drama.
  • First Girl Wins: Jesse ends up with Ana, the Hot Librarian in the library where he constantly visits.
  • First-Name Basis: Jesse addresses Prof. Hoberg as Peter to signify their closeness.
  • Five-Second Foreshadowing:
    • Just as Jesse lays his laundry bag down to set the washing machine, the guy sitting across it glances at him for a while then grabs the moment he's sure Jesse is focused on setting up the machine.
    • Before formally goading Jesse to sleep with her, Professor Fairfield has been Erotic Eating.
  • Flipping the Bird: Jesse and Prof. Fairfield gave each other a one finger salute after their one night stand ended in a heated discussion.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Professor Hoberg's retirement speech is mostly filled with regret and uncertainty than celebration. There were also lingering shots of the other faculty members in this scene, most of whom are reacting insincerely to the speech.
    • Not long after Dean's introduction, Zibby mentions his previous suicide attempt, and every proceeding scenes he's increasingly sardonic. He also loves reading Infinite Jest, whose author David Foster Wallace, committed suicide in 2008.
    • You're not thinking that the librarian, whose actress has And Starring billing, is just there to give quick glances at Jesse, do you?
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The four male characters. Jesse is phlegmatic, Dean is melancholic, Professor Hoberg is choleric and Nat is sanguine.
  • Gender-Equal Ensemble: There are six primary characters; three males (Jesse, Prof. Hoberg, and Dean), three females (Zibby, Prof. Fairfield, and Ana).
  • The Glomp: Zibby jump hugs Jesse on their Big Damn Reunion after months of writing each other.
  • Godwin's Law: Downplayed. Zibby compares Jesse's dismissive attitude towards Twilight to the book burnings done by repressive regimes without specifically naming Nazi Germany.
  • Growing Up Sucks:
    • The main plot of the story is to defy this, which is perfectly said by Jesse in a meaningful speech to a suicidal Dean near the end.
    Jesse: Don't be a genius who dies young. Be one who dies old. Being old is cool. Grow old, and die old. It's a better arc.
    • Perfectly stated by Prof. Hoberg at the middle of the film.
    Prof. Hoberg: Nobody feels like an adult. That's the world's dirty secret.
  • Grumpy Old Man: Both Professors Hoberg and Fairfield. The former is quite jaded while the latter is very, very nilhistic.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Nat and Zibby. Both are blondes, and both are friendly.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Zibby. We see her frequently at parties. The same can be said to her best friend Vanessa.
  • The Hecate Sisters:
    • Zibby - young, wise and somewhat adventurous, but also naive (the maiden).
    • Ana - enthusiastic Proper Lady (the mother).
    • Professor Fairfield - bitter, jaded and unsentimental (the crone).
  • Hipster: Zibby. For a 19-year-old, she likes listening to classical music, prefers handwritten letters as a way for communication, and has no issues with classical literature.
  • Hot Librarian: Ana, the cute librarian at the bookstore Jesse frequently visits in New York. They ended up together.
  • Hot Teacher: Prof. Fairfield is a Statuesque Stunner at age 53.note 
  • Hypocrite: After refusing to sleep with Zibby using their age difference as an excuse, Jesse immediately sleeps with Prof. Fairfield.
  • Ice Queen: Prof. Fairfield, which is lampshaded early in the film.
    Jesse: What is she like? Is she cool?
    Prof. Hoberg: She's definitely not warm.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: Though he was at the verge of giving in to the temptation, Jesse ultimately shrugs off Zibby's advances.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Jesse with several characters, namely; Prof. Hoberg, Dean and Nat. He and Zibby ultimately end up here, against her initial wishes.
  • Irony:
    • Jesse ultimately rejects Zibby because he cares about her a lot. This did not escape Zibby, though she still becomes too emotional afterwards and wouldn't reconcile what Jesse did until meeting him again months later.
    • As Jesse lampshaded after his one-nigh stand with Professor Fairfield ended in a heated discussion.
    Jesse: I had the least romantic night of my life with a romantics professor.
  • Jade-Colored Glasses: Prof. Fairfield.
    Prof. Fairfield: I like to teach. I used to love it.
    Jesse: What happened?
    Prof. Fairfield: Life happened.
  • Journey to Find Oneself: Jesse at the beginning. He goes back to his alma mater in hopes of reconnecting with people he knew (in this case Professor Hoberg) because he just came from a break-up.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Jesse is a Deconstructed Character Archetype. He is a natural idealist who knows the world isn't as rosy-colored as he liked it to be but still chooses to be positive. However, this attitude gets him misunderstood by other people and it also often leads to Jesse finding himself lost in life.
  • Laugh of Love:
    • Zibby giggles when she gives Jesse a CD containing classical music that she suggested earlier, indicating that she's finally having feelings for him. They both share one during their Big Damn Reunion.
    • Jesse and Ana are later seen having a light conversation while giggling.
  • Likes Older Men:
    • Zibby, and she elaborated it as much as possible.
    Zibby: "The dudes here continue to be 18-22 years old and they continue to act their age. I'd like a gentleman caller, and I'd like him to be you (Jesse)."
    • Jesse has always been awestruck for his favorite professor, Judith Fairfield.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Dean's reputation as a suicidal Emo Teen has made him unapproachable to his peers.
  • Love at First Sight: Jesse to Zibby. Zibby also said that her mom immediately has a crush on Jesse upon meeting him.
  • Love Hurts: Zibby is clearly hurt and in tears despite agreeing that she and Jesse are Better as Friends.
  • Love Letter: Jesse and Zibby writing each other during the first Time Passes Montage weren't this at first despite their clear chemistry, but Zibby writes her final letter as an Anguished Declaration of Love.
  • Magnetic Hero: Jesse has no trouble getting people drawn to him.
  • Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Zibby has traits of this, with her youthful spunk giving zest on Jesse's mundane life. In a non-romantic example (because Jesse is mainly weirded by him), Nat.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: A variant. While Jesse is attracted to Zibby, he struggles to restrain himself from pushing a romantic relationship with her due to their age-gap. He ultimately didn't go through with it, but Zibby wants to. They have a fallout and she becomes an emotional mess. He apologizes to her in the end.
  • Meaningful Appearance: Nat is constantly wearing a chullo, further adding to his Cloudcuckoo Lander prsona. Word of God says it's to give Zac Efron anonymity. Zibby is also wearing a trilby in one scene.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I can't just say yes to everything" is the payoff to the Arc Words above. Also, The Growing Up Sucks speeches above.
  • Meet Cute: Jesse heads to his old college for his former professor's retirement ceremony and meets Zibby, the daughter of another former student of said professor.
  • Mind Screw: Nat's second appearance may or may not be a manifestation of Jesse's imagination.
  • No Full Name Given: Jesse and the two professors are the only characters with given full names.
  • Not Named in Opening Credits: Zac Efron, as Nat, is intended as a "surprise guest" and is not credited in the OBB and promotional posters. He is in the CBB though.
  • Official Couple: Jesse and Zibby are a subversion. Jesse instead ends the film with Ana, while Zibby goes on with her life.
  • Older Than They Look: Jesse is stated to look young for a guy in his mid-30s.
  • One-Steve Limit: Meta example. There are two actresses named Elizabeth in the film; Elizabeth Olsen (Zibby) and Elizabeth Reaser (Ana).
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Zibby's real name is actually Elizabeth.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Jesse states that he prefers to travel by road because he hates flying. After Dean's Bungled Suicide, Jesse books the earliest flight to Ohio he could find to get to him.
  • The Place: Much of the movie takes place in the College of Liberal Arts in Ohio.
  • Politically Motivated Teacher: Professor Hoberg. According to Jesse, he frequently ranted about the U.S. Government during class. Susan (Zibby's mother) also says he made her and her classmates sing pro-union songs.
  • The Pollyanna: Nat, for all his weirdness, never ran out of positive and wise things to say.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: Plenty, especially during Jesse and Zibby's Classical Music Is Cool conversation in the first Time Passes Montage. Jules Massenet's "Médiation", Antonio Vivaldi's "Vedrò con mio diletto", Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser: Overture", and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Soave sia il vento" in particular being discussed.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Ana, the Hot Librarian, has really dark hair and is notably pale.
  • Reconstruction: The film does this with many things.
    • Lowbrow works like the Twilight book series. Despite its "shallowness", it also provides readers some Guilty Pleasure. Jesse begrudgingly acknowledges this when he realizes that it's exactly the perfect escapism alternative for the suicidal Dean, who is into heavy-themed classic romantic novels.
    • Jesse himself is constantly lost in life for his Knight in Sour Armor disposition. But his interactions with the other characters also show why someone like that is important to have around.
  • Running Gag:
    • Professors Fairfield and Hoeberg respectively being Jesse's most favorite professors.
    • Vanessa walking into Jesse and Zibby having an intimate conversation.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: When Jesse and Professor Fairfield are having sex, only her Immodest Orgasm is heard while the scene shows Zibby making out with the guy who is courting him instead.
  • Shadow Archetype: Jesse has two.
    • Jesse is an Ohio native who went to live in New York, while Prof. Hoberg is a New Yorker who now lives in Ohio.
    • Jesse sees Dean as a younger, but more destructive version of himself.
  • Shipper on Deck: Nat is a full-fledged Jesse and Zibby shipper, even being the one to officially push the former on initiating pursut on the latter.
  • Shout-Out: The film is a love letter to literature and bookworms as well as Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College.
  • Shut Up, Kirk!: The idealist Jesse gets shut down twice. First by Zibby when he resists sleeping with her, then by Prof. Fairfield after their discussion post coitus.
  • Silver Vixen: Prof. Fairfield is still a Hot Teacher after all these years, as seen with Jesse's reaction.
    Jesse: Professor!
  • Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Nat, Dean, Ana, Zibby's parents.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The movie's overall theme is centered around the idea that one will lose and gain things as they grow old, it's just a matter of perspective if it'll let it affect your outlook positively or not.
  • Smitten Teenage Girl: Zibby to Jesse. They clearly have chemistry on the get go, and she makes a Laugh of Love when she handed him the CD before he heads back to New York. She's completely fallen for him by the end of the first Time Passes Montage.
  • Smoking Is Cool: Dean, which he lampshades, saying that he knows it's bad for him. Jesse promptly tells him to just quit after graduating. Jesse is later mocked by Prof. Fairfield after their one night stand for doing just that. While she's smoking, of course.
  • So Bad, It's Good: In universe example. Zibby described the Twilight books as this. Ultimately, Jesse acknowledges it as such and suggested the books to the depressive and suicidal Dean.
    Jesse: (to Dean) There are this vampire books. The kids love 'em. Trust me. It'll empty your mind, completely.
  • So Bad, It's Horrible: In universe example. Jesse described the Twilight books as this.
    Jesse: This is the worst book ever written in English.
    Zibby: So there are worst books written in other languages?
    Jesse: Probably not. Unless this book is translated in other languages.
  • Stalking Is Love: Ana is glancing at Jesse in her first few scenes. Once they finally have a proper conversation, they hit it off quickly.
  • Take That!: Mainly, the film is this to Romanticists. Also to modern vampire novels, particularly Twilight, which is funny because Elizabeth Reaser is part of the cast of The Film of the Book.
  • Tall, Dark, and Snarky: Prof. Fairfield is an Ice Queen Statuesque Stunner.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Jesse and Prof. Fairfield had a one night stand near the end of the film that ended on a terrible note.
  • The Teetotaler: Nat, who even states that alcohol is for "suckers".
  • Third-Option Love Interest: Zibby and Prof. Fairfield are the only women Jesse has shown attraction towards for much of the film. He didn't get to have a proper interaction with Ana until near the end.
  • Time Passes Montage: Months pass when Jesse and Zibby write each other during the middle of the film. How many months specifically is not mentioned.
  • Time Skip: Twice. The beginning and middle of the film is accommodated with a Time Passes Montage of Jesse and Zibby writing each other. The middle and the last arc is only mentioned.
  • Toilet Humor: According to Zibby's parents, her shows are both filthy and funny.
  • Token Minority: Vanessa, Zibby's best friend and roommate, is the only non-Caucasian character in the film (she's of East Asian descent).
  • Troubled Teen: Dean is a suicidal Emo Teen.
  • Unexpected Virgin: Zibby. The way she laments on how relationship has become so casual earlier in the film causes Jesse to assume it was Zibby regretting a past sexual encounter. Finding this out after she just asked him to have sex with her is what made Jesse realize that she's pushing too fast to have a relationship without thinking things first, which was the sign he needed to end their budding relationship.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Jesse and Zibby. For Jesse's part, it's unresolved because he considers their 16-year age gap as a factor. Ultimately, they realize that they're Better as Friends.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot: Exaggerated. After realizing she smells like beer, Zibby ran off-camera for a few minutes before returning and stating that she puked.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Dean says that the only reason he returns to college is that it'll make his single mother proud.
  • Wham Line: Three towards the end, on different occasions.
    Zibby: "This would be my. first time. But I want to. With you."
    Prof. Fairfield: "I have a car. And I want you to get in it with me. I would like to drive us somewhere."
    Dean: "I just took a bunch of pills."
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Zibby's flaw. Despite being Wise Beyond Their Years, she has a black and white view of intimate relationships. That's why when Jesse rejects them having a Relationship Upgrade due to their age-gap, Zibby couldn't reconcile that he only did it to not take advantage of her and has an emotional breakdown.
  • Wild Teen Party: Nat took Jesse into one where he eventually meets Zibby for the second time. Zibby later goes into another one after Jesse dumps her.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: The film explores both the ups and downs of this trope.
    • Zibby is intellectual and wise in many ways except the matters regarding the heart, which leads to her heart being broken. She eventually realize this flaw, though.
    • Nat, being the Erudite Stoner that he is, actually makes good points in his speeches, but comes off as a weirdo.
    • Dean. Academically/Intellectually speaking, he may well be magnificent. But the guy has poor wisdom.


Video Example(s):


Jesse does the math

35-year old Jesse Fischer finds himself attracted to 19-year old Zibby but their 16-year age difference bothers him. He then starts calculating their would be ages and finds himself more comfortable with the idea.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (6 votes)

Example of:

Main / AgeGapAlgebra

Media sources: