In The Art of Getting By, Teflon slacker George (Freddie Highmore) is paralyzed by dread. Loneliness and death haunt him. Worse still, everyone insists he must get a job someday. George’s philosophy consists of three words: What’s the point? The film is now playing at AMC Loews Plainville Theaters, Plainville, CT.
A modern day Peter Pan with less charm, George never wants to grow up. He carries The Stranger by Albert Camus everywhere. He refuses to do his homework. (The original title of the film was Homework.) Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood) gives George an ultimatum: complete all his homework or no diploma.
Highmore (Toast; August Rush) seems hemmed in by the film’s sometimes stilted dialogue and story. “I’m obnoxious. I’m deeply disrespectful,” George says.
Emma Roberts – niece of Julia Roberts – creates real nuance and a screen presence worth checking out. Still, we never understand what Sally sees in the misanthrope. “You have issues,” she says. The two start hanging out after George takes the rap for smoking on the school roof, allowing Sally to escape undetected.
Sally is embarrassed by her boozing mom (Elizabeth Reaser) who is searching for a new boyfriend. The two friends assume the role of grown-ups when Mrs. Howe flirts with George.
George’s mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards) are distracted and stressed out with money problems and each other. When his mother learns that George hasn’t been doing his homework for months, she is genuinely stunned.
This freshman outing by writer-director Gavin Wiesen is an interesting but bumpy training run needing better dialogue and deeper character development. The Art of Getting By will attract audiences of slackers, as well as teachers who struggle to understand them.
The film has a flat quality as it insists on meaninglessness. There is not one, single spiritual moment. George and Sally’s foundering parents seem more clueless than their kids. Everyone trudges along, convinced that grades, jobs and money is pretty much all there is. No wonder the next generation is so disillusioned.
The highest aspiration George can manage is turning his frenzied sketches into art. Unfortunately, he freezes when asked for his point of view. Too terrified to do his art homework, he can’t imagine taking his friendship with Sally to the next level. It takes an overly-convenient emergency at home to wake George up.
Wiesen beautifully observes a few emotionally complex scenes. George and Sally pass each other like strangers on a New York street. Cinematographer Ben Kutchins zooms in on their faces at a Valentine’s Day dinner.
Some of George’s teachers believe in him, especially a pissed off art instructor Harris McElroy (memorably played by Jarlath Conroy). One teacher speaks plainly at a disciplinary meeting: “You don’t respect us, so why should we respect you?” Alicia Silverstone plays a concerned English teacher.
George begins to hang out with Sally’s friends. Sasha Spielberg and Marcus Carl Franklin play rich adolescents who have mastered the art of underage drinking and clubbing.
The Art of Getting By could serve as a how-to for young artists. Here’s what George learns about unlocking his inner Basquiat:
“Figure out what you want to say and say it,” Harris tells him. “Look in the mirror and listen to your gut.” George’s final class project must be honest and fearless.
“Be resourceful,” George’s stepfather tells him. This advice rings hollow as the adult inhabits his own world of secrets and lies.
Knowing what to paint “is the hardest part,” says Dustin (Michael Angarano of Snow Angels), George’s self-involved mentor. Examining the slacker’s original doodles, he insists: “This is what you should be painting.” Producer Andrew Levitas provides the film’s excellent artwork and plays student Javier.
The Art of Getting By has a tedious, depressed feeling that is buoyed somewhat by its closing act.
Interviewed by MovieLine, Roberts said, “There are so many high school romance films that have all this teenaged, heightened emotion. That’s not how it happens.” For her, the film’s coming-of-age theme means “you need to figure out who you are for yourself, not for your friends or your family or your teachers. You kind of need to figure that out for you.”
If you like The Art of Getting By, you might enjoy: Hesher; Everything Must Go; Win Win.
The Art of Getting By 2011 / PG-13 / 1 hour, 24 min
Cast Overview: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser, Sam Robards, Jarlath Conroy, Ann Dowd, Marcus Carl Franklin, Sasha Spielberg, Rita Wilson, Blair Underwood
Director: Gavin Wiesen
Genre: Drama, Dramedy, Romantic Comedy