There’s a scene in Josh Radnor’s sophomore effort, Liberal Arts, where a 35-year-old admissions officer is mathematically analyzing what it means to date a 19-year-old. No words are uttered, it’s all simple math written on screen, yet it’s filled with more humor, poise and philosophy in two minutes than some movies have in two hours. The scene spawned a round of applause mid-movie. Not bad for a writer/director who most people know as a sitcom star.

With Liberal Arts, Radnor positions himself as a mini-Cameron Crowe, mixing joy, life lessons and a love of culture into a perfect, crowd pleasing film. Co-starring Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney and Zac Efron, Liberal Arts had its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and received a well-deserved standing ovation. Read more after the jump.

At its heart, Liberal Arts about a struggle against adulthood. You have Radnor’s character going back to his alma mater and falling for a 19-year-old student (Olsen). You have his favorite professor (Jenkins) struggling with retirement. And along the way, other characters pop in and out (Efron is one particular bright spot) who dole out life lessons and ideas about what that all means.

Where the Cameron Crowe thing really comes in, besides the goosebump-inducing scenes of joy, is how Radnor uses and appreciates not only music but also literature to drive the story forward. Reading is of the utmost importance in Liberal Arts and the characters almost universally find that books say things better than they do. Of course, all the connections come from Radnor’s screenplay so he’s the true maestro.

If anything, Liberal Arts might have too many ideas to grasp. It’s not only about age, it’s also about nostalgia, sex, caterpillars, you name it. The can also be a tad bit obvious. But for the most part, Radnor is able to mix it all together into a film that shows his visual vocabulary is improving as well as his ability to make the audience feel and learn.

Though his first film happythankyoumoreplease was good, Liberal Arts is fantastic. It is, in my mind, one of the best films showing at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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