The Art of Getting By is a little indie that shouldn’t be missed. Gavin Wiesen, director and writer for his first feature-length film here (which premiered at this year’s Sundance), takes a shot at the whole coming-of-age, boy’s first love ordeal. Wiesen breaks down every cliché he builds up to, delivering an honesty in relationships rarely portrayed on screen.
The film follows the interesting George, a high school senior who stopped doing his homework once he realized that we all die anyway, so what’s the point when there are better things to do. Good for him.
You can imagine how well this goes over with his teachers, especially when he shares this philosophy in front of the other students at his NYC prep school. But George is not playing antisocial for kicks. Nor is he simply embracing the rite of teenage laziness. And he’s not a Ferris Bueller ripoff, thwarting those dang authority figures who don’t want him to have a good time. He calls his teachers by their first names because it makes sense, not because he’s pretentious. This is a misanthrope we can like because he cut out the BS. George is genuinely sad he has realized his fate, ending his ignorant childhood bliss.
You may be asking, “Okay, but where’s the love story?” Before the film can get to that, it makes sure we like George. Easily convincing, with Freddie Highmore playing the role. You might remember Highmore as the adorable little tyke adept at making us tear up in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland. He’s fairly grown up now, using those big eyes and impish grin to charm the school faculty and the audience into believing that we should trust what he says (and without the British accent!).
Principal Martinson (played well enough by Blair Underwood) knows George is a good kid but also knows he can’t let him undermine the establishment forever. Part of the movie is George facing off with his teachers (Alicia Silverstone playing it up a bit too much as the English teacher made up for by a hilariously scary Jarlath Conroy as the Art teacher) and the suspense of how he will get by come graduation day when he still hasn’t completed a single homework assignment.
The other part of the movie is George being taken with popular girl, Sally (played by Emma Roberts). After he assumes responsibility for an act that would have gotten Sally suspended, she brings George into her circle. Sally and her friends (George’s other classmates) are 17 going on 35, coming from wealthy families that leave them to their own devices in posh apartments with the liquor cabinet key at their disposal. They go wherever and do whatever they want in the city. (Are there really teens like this in existence? Every CW show seems to think so, so who am I to argue with that.). While George can easily dazzle adults out of punishing him with his self-assured maturity, Sally manages to make him look like a little kid with a boyhood crush.
Sally, like her mom (played nicely by Twilight‘s Elizabeth Reaser), seduces out of boredom and habit. Mom warns her that’s not nice to do with the good ones. Sally claims to have everything under control. It seems pretty clear that George is going to be crushed. Even the principal is keen enough to realize that George’s strong hold on his place in this world might not be enough to help him get by in this situation. And we, the audience, get to just sit back and watch the potential disaster unfold. We think we know these characters. We think we know how this story goes. But we don’t and that makes it good.
All the supporting characters do a great job in the film, especially Michael Angarano who perfectly walks the line between a sleazy, phony artist and a sensitive guy who doesn’t kid himself. Initially, it seems like Emma Roberts is not trying very hard. She had a lot more going on when she played a similar character in Lymelife (highly recommended) so her Sally is a bit of a disappointment. The chemistry between her and Highmore is lacking.
However, this could actually be quite brilliant if intended this way. It plays better if the audience’s heart strings aren’t pulled through their brains leaving them unable to think of anything but pining for her love, right along with George. That would be cheap. Any movie could do that. It’s actually more interesting for us not to care much for Roberts’s character or her feelings when she wears the same stoic face throughout the film. We learn that sometimes we like who we like, even when it doesn’t make sense. And these two kids actually do something smart about that.
Allison blogs at Meet in the Lobby.
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