The Art of Getting By
We haven't seen Freddie Highmore in three years, not since The Spiderwick Chronicles. Apparently, he's spent that time studying how to come off like a wet rag in his first role as a romantic lead, opposite the usually charming Emma Roberts in The Art of Getting By.
Highmore's George is a self-proclaimed fatalist, prone to wearing an overcoat and generally resistant to the concept of completing his school assignments. "What's the use in the great scheme of things?" he parries with teachers like the one played by Alicia Silverstone. He doesn't have many friends – any that we see – but he does take a liking to Sally (Roberts), who is similarly prone to playing hooky and really digs the sketches in the margins of George's textbooks. She cares about the boy who doesn't care about anything, and he doesn't know what to do in that situation.
With his debut feature, writer-director Gavin Wiesen captures, to a certain extent, universal frustrations that teens feel when faced with the hasty end of school and the messy transition into so-called real life (even well-to-do Manhattan prep schoolers have their doubts). Ben Kutchins' cinematography fitfully evokes a more melancholy mood than the dialogue, capturing New York as a brightly lit horizon with plenty of quiet little corners in which one can tuck away and avoid responsibility. The soundtrack is appropriately populated with low-key indie rock neither too corporately tailor-made nor too friend's-garage-band for its own good.
However, Wiesen is committed to the indie-romance path paved by many films before and their archetypes – the Articulate Loner, the Porcelain-Perfect Princess, the Weary Mentors and Concerned Parents. The world's simplest courtship consists of George taking Sally out to a repertory theater and Sally taking George out to a nightclub; that's all she needs in order to hand her heart over to Mr. Most Likely to Mumble. The dialogue doesn't feel overwritten so much as overly rehearsed, spilling out of characters' mouths with the limpest of convictions.
Highmore's awkward, breathless American accent doesn't help matters, nor do Wiesen's reminders that George is no Holden Caulfield. His pre-programmed quirks and hangdog demeanor serve to defuse any chemistry that Roberts might have supplied. He has to wonder if school is worth finishing, and if life is worth living, with or without her, and she simply has to determine if she's been sleeping with the right artist before jetting off to Europe for the summer.
This leads to a contrived climax involving George's highly unlikely tackling of every missed assignment, Sally's highly predictable last-minute decision at the airport gate and the all-critical graduation ceremony, where you realize Wiesen only gave George a last name that starts with Z in order to milk the suspense for as long as he can. Even at 85 minutes, The Art of Getting By feels longer than it should; enough to feel much more like its original title: Homework.