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Film / Liberal Arts

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Liberal Arts is a 2012 Comedy Drama 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. Kate Burton and Robert Desiderio also have small roles as Zibby's parents.

As he somewhat lost his passion in life, Jesse Fisher, 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:

  • Adult Fear:
    • Professor Hoberg retired too soon, and even regretted it saying he needs three more years (likely to complete a payment to a plan).
    • Zibby and Dean constantly worry about entering the real world. This is in fact true for many teenagers/young adults.
  • 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.
  • Advertisement:
  • And Starring: Elizabeth Reaser in the OBB.
  • Arc Symbol: Books, which was in fact described almost word for word as such.
  • Arc Words: "Yes" for Jesse, which is triggered by Nat's earlier statement that "Fortune never smile on those who say no". For Zibby, "And" which follows Jesse's aforementioned "Yes" Explanation .
  • Big Applesauce: Jesse lives here. Prof. Hoberg formerly does too.
  • Big Brother Mentor: Jesse becomes this to Dean.
  • 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 and his favorite professor's relationship is significantly damaged and there's 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • Completely Missing the Point: Zibby's mom doesn't get the improv regarding handing her "lemonades in a dessert".
  • Cool Old Guy: Downplayed with Prof. Hoberg. He is warm, but he isn't always shown to be happy.
  • Cynical Mentor: Both Professors Hoberg and Fairfield in varying degrees.
  • 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 opening act sees Jesse getting robbed then subsequently dumped by his girlfriend.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: After being rejected by Jesse, 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.
  • 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...
  • First Girl Wins: Jesse ends up with Ana, the Hot Librarian in the library where he constantly visits.
  • Flipping the Bird: Jesse and Prof. Fairfield gave each other a one finger salute after their one night stand ended in a heated discussion.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The four male characters. Jesse is phlegmatic, Dean is melancholic, Professor Hoberg is choleric and Nat is sanguine.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Jesse with several characters, namely; Prof. Hoberg, Dean and Nat. He and Zibby ultimately end up here, against her initial wishes.
  • Irony: Lampshaded.
    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.
  • 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.
  • 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. He apologizes to her in the end.
  • Meaningful Echo: "I can't just say yes to everything". Also, The Growing Up Sucks speeches above.
  • Mind Screw: Nat's second appearance may or may not be a manifestation of Jesse's imagination.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Ana, the Hot Librarian, has really dark hair and is notably pale.
  • Reconstruction: The film does this with many things. For instance, Jesse's alleged accusation of "shallowness" of the Twilight books becomes a factor when he acknowledges its somewhat light plot by suggesting them to a suicidal Dean, who is into heavy-themed classic romantic novels.
  • 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 with the scene showing Zibby making out with the guy who is courting him.
  • 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.
  • 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 vs. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • So Bad, It's Horrible: In universe example. Jesse described the Twilight books as this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Token Minority: Vanessa, Zibby's best friend and roommate, is the only non-Caucasian character in the film (she's of East Asian descent).
  • Toilet Humor: According to Zibby's parents, her shows are both filthy and funny.
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • 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.


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