"The Art of Getting By" premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival (where it was shown under its original title "Homework"), then got picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight Pictures despite lukewarm critical notices. On the one hand, it's perplexing why the studio decided to take a chance on such a trite coming-of-ager as this. Then again, it's dumbed-down enough that maybe they thought the mainstream would go for it. The writing-directing debut of Gavin Wiesen, "The Art of Getting By" is halfway endearing in its semi-amateurishness, plagued by all the mistakes that can come from limited-resource indie filmmaking while overflowing with the clichés inherent in design-by-committee studio fare.
"We live alone, we die alone. Everything else is an illusion." On a planet where 110 billion people have come and gone through the ages, George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) doesn't much see the point in anything, least of all school work. In his senior year at a Manhattan preparatory academy, George is clearly bright but constantly tardy on assignments, often opting to draw a picture in place of taking a test. Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood) warns that if he doesn't turn things around soon, he may not graduate at the end of the year. George no sooner promises to try and do better when he meets pretty classmate Sally Howe (Emma Roberts), a solid student who becomes intrigued after he covers for her when she's almost caught smoking on the school's roof. Sally seeks him out and befriends him thereafter, the two obviously smitten with each other but George unwilling to make the necessary next step in expressing his feelings. Complicating matters further are family issues on both sidesSally's single mom (Elizabeth Reaser) is a functioning alcoholic, while George's mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards) have begun keeping secrets and having money problemsand the introduction of a slightly older artist, Dustin (Michael Angarano), who kindly offers to mentor George as Sally's eyes start to wander in his direction.
There are enough positive things to say about "The Art of Getting By" that it's a shame there are at least twice as many failings. Every facet of the plot feels derivative, the bulk of screen time swirling with devotion around a friendship between George and Sally that comes out of the blue, these two people forced into the same frame because the screenplay demands it rather than because it's an organic occurrence. From there, they spend an inordinate amount of time together, no doubt because the narrative was otherwise patently thin and didn't otherwise have enough material to reach feature length. The two would make a good couple, yet George is set up to be emotionally distant and unable to consider a romantic relationship. Why? Because then the movie would be about twenty minutes long. For her part, Sally gets antsy being alone and, after a fight with George, seduces Dustin. Any guess who is at Sally's apartment when George shows up to finally lay his heart on the line? Adhering to further cobwebbed conventions, there is a kissing scene set for no logical reason on the bare hardwood floor, the soothing yellow glow of the light from outside spotlighting them. Just when you think there can't be any more cinematic love story platitudes, a last-minute trip to Europe is introduced, threatening to tear George and Sally apart. Wait another minute, and sure enough there is a fateful airport scene.
Absent from live-action acting projects since 2008's "The Spiderwick Chronicles
," Freddie Highmore has noticeably grown up in the intervening three years. He's still got a sweet, apple-cheeked face, but he's taller and looks a little wiser. Playing the sensitive but rebellious George, Highmore is well-cast as an outsider whose struggles result from his inability to break free from the existential worries of his own mind (okay, he might also be a bit of a slacker, too). With that said, writer-director Gavin Wiesen botches the chance to genuinely explore George's internal self after an opening narration where he is shown to be at constant war with his feelings about death and the meaning of life. As Sally, Emma Roberts (2011's "Scream 4
") is such a pleasant presence that the unreliable choices her character makes don't seem quite so damning on first glance. Think about it for longer, and Sally suddenly reveals herself to be rather shallow in the way she refocuses her attention on Dustinthe guy that it would really hurt George to see her withand seems to consider running away with him just so she can get a free trip out of it.
More successful are the subplots around the edges and the choice to pen most of the ensemble with empathetic strokes. The mother-son bond between Vivian and George is touchingly and naturalistically heartfelt, with Vivian proving to care enough about her son to choose him in an instant over her second husband. Rita Wilson (2009's "It's Complicated
") is understated and all the more wonderful for it as Vivian. Michael Angarano (2011's "Red State
") is also a standout in a decidedly non-stereotypical role. Yes, Dustin becomes the "other guy," but he shows a compassion for George and a sense of responsibility to him that leads to much reluctance in getting involved with Sally. Daughter-of-Steven Sasha Spielberg (2010's "The Kids Are All Right
") has some surprisingly nice moments in the small role of Sally's wealthy friend Zoe; this character could have easily been turned into a snooty, stuck-up terror, but she, too, is treated as kind and down-to-earth. And proving to "Clueless" fans the world over that we're all getting old, Alicia Silverstone (2006's "Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker
") dresses down as English teacher Ms. Herman, who recognizes George's untapped potential.
Still in the getting-to-know-each-other stage, George takes Sally to see a revival of Louis Malle's "Zazie dans le métro." For a moment, it was nice to see two modern teenagers expanding their minds, capable of enjoying and appreciating the diversity of art and culture. Once over, however, they do not have anything to say about the film they've just watched and promptly return to the dopier motion picture they're starring inone that Malle would scarcely be able to tolerate if he were still alive today. "The Art of Getting By" comes with a highly listenable soundtrack (including tracks by The Shins, Leonard Cohen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Earlimart, and The French Kicks) and fine performances at the service of a rickety, naive story told with narrow-minded quaintness. Director Gavin Wiesen and cinematographer Ben Kutchins bring a bit of flavor to their New York City locations, but with this comes the betrayal of a low budget, as well, the same street decorated with Christmas lights returned to so many times that it comes close to eliciting wholly unintentional laughter. It's like this throughout. "The Art of Getting By" has what it takes to move the viewer, at least sporadically. Boy, though. The rest of it sure is pedestrian.