Liberal Arts

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
Liberal Arts Movie Poster Image
Thoughtful romance mulls impact of large age difference.
  • PG-13
  • 2012
  • 97 minutes

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 1 review

Kids say

age 15+
Based on 2 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Love can strike anytime and anywhere -- but in the real world, not every pairing can work, even between people who get along wonderfully. This film examines the possibilities of a May-December flirtation between a young college girl and a man approaching middle age, who wonder whether love is enough to sustain them. They think carefully and thoughtfully about the implications and make well-reasoned decisions.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jesse is clearly torn between his attraction to a charming, eager college student and his realization that she's 16 years his junior, and a relationship with her may not be good for either of them.


A college student discusses whether she should sleep with an older man. A couple has a one-night stand, with some brief sex sounds that take place in the dark. People are shown after having sex. A couple kisses warmly.


Relatively infrequent swearing includes "screw," "p---y," "sucks," and "screw you." Two people flip each other off.


The film promotes Kenyon College, where it was filmed.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some drinking at meals and social events, and a bit more drinking at college parties. One woman lights up a cigarette after sex.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Liberal Arts centers on the budding relationship between a teenage college girl and a man in his mid-30s and looks at whether they can make things work despite the significant age difference. Don't expect any teen-sex comedy cliches -- this thoughtful film starring writer-director Josh Radnor (from the sitcom How I Met Your Mother) and Elizabeth Olsen, tackles the question realistically, and the couple works through their obvious attraction and the equally obvious hurdles they face. Expect some swearing and drinking, and one sex scene that takes place in the dark but has some very obvious sounds.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bywonder dove July 27, 2013

Excellent film!

I wanted to see this movie so bad and finally did. I liked it, but was expecting a little more out of it. It was refreshing and real, none of that teen romance... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written byGorgeus June 17, 2021
Teen, 14 years old Written bystudboy24 June 16, 2014

Liberal Arts

I first wanted to see this movie because it was a film by Josh Radnor from Himym (How i Met Your Mother). But the film became so much more than that. It was int... Continue reading

What's the story?

Jesse (Josh Radnor) returns to his alma mater to visit a favorite professor and becomes beguiled by Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a mature-beyond-her-years sophomore. But they're both torn by the 16-year age difference between them that may make a real relationship impossible. The more time they spend together, the clearer it is that they have a real connection, but it also becomes obvious that a May-December pairing, while romantic in theory, is hard in real life. And soon they're going to have make some hard choices.

Is it any good?

The ideas that propel LIBERAL ARTS are interesting and even mildly thought-provoking. Who among us hasn't, at some point, tired of the daily grind of a grown-up life? Especially one like Jesse's: He's in an unimpressive apartment in a difficult city interviewing pre-collegiate kids full of hope, kids with so much ahead of them. It's these observations that make Liberal Arts a joy to watch. That and its circuitous but still refreshing plot in search of a happy ending. Everything until Jesse finds himself alone with Zibby in her dorm room has spark, the crackle of possibility. (Plus, Richard Jenkins! The man elevates anything he's in.) And its hard left turn into a direction different from what you might expect is surprising in a pleasant way.

Still, what does come next seems moot at that point, and Liberal Arts loses its footing a bit. The ending feels like an afterthought; we want to be back in the thick of Zibby and Jesse's flirtation, back when something beautiful appears all too possible. But alas. Isn't it pretty to think so?

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what Liberal Arts is saying about love and relationships. What's the impact of a significant age difference on a couple?

  • Should people get second chances when they make a poor decision?

  • Who do you think the film's target audience is? Why do you say that?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romance

Themes & Topics

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