Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion
In The Art of Getting By, writer/director Gavin Wiesen centers his coming-of-age story on George (Freddie Highmore) – an intelligent but underachieving high school senior filled with teenage angst. He doesn’t have any friends, sketches all over his textbooks, and over thinks everything. Of course, as fate would have it, sheer dumb luck brings his high school crush, Sally (Emma Roberts), into his life and turns the last few months of high school upside down for him.
The best elements of the film concern getting to know George and Sally. Each of them feel like outsiders looking in, like they’re playing the parts expected of them but only because it’s the easiest way to survive high school’s proving grounds. Sure, as adults we realize the transiency of those moments but I’m sure that during those years, most of us felt the world revolved around the our own activities and those of our immediate circle. So for the first 45 to 60 minutes, the story of these characters will likely resonate with audiences.
And then the bottom drops out. While Rita Wilson and Elizabeth Reaser do a nice job of playing George and Sally’s mothers (respectively), nearly every other adult feels like a stock character from a hundred different movies about high school. We’ve got Michael Angarano as the stereotypical New York artist/former graduate of the same high school, who serves as a mentor for George and, of course, at some point screws him over … but it’s okay, it’ll serve to teach him a life lesson (*puke*). Sam Robards plays George’s stepfather, and just think how stepfathers are normally written and you know how this will turn out (*sigh*).
Then there are the faculty of the school. Blair Underwood is the tough but overly fair principle who keeps giving George chances because of his potential – no matter how many rules he breaks. English teacher Alicia Silverstone (like I care what her character name is) is so happy to see that a kid actually understands the mind-numbingly boring work of Thomas Hardy and only gets fed up with his antics when it’s time for the script to shift into autowrite. Jarlath Conroy portrays the gruff art teacher (complete with just a wisp of a pony tail) that nurtures his students like an old-timey midshipman on leave. George also has a trigonometry teacher (Ann Dowd) that isn’t happy he’s not applying himself. She too fits neatly into this carbon copy assembly of teachers that apparently have the time to focus so much energy on one kid because that’s how movies work (*puke* and *sigh*).
Needless to say, the only real bright spots are Highmore and Roberts. They really absorb and become these characters, sharing a wonderful chemistry despite the shortcomings the script imparts onto the other actors (and ultimately onto them as well). It’s a little odd to see little Freddie Highmore growing up but he nails the role and makes us believe all of the eccentricities and insecurities welled up inside of George. Roberts is also fantastic, albeit in a slightly different role than audiences may be accustomed to (emotionally guarded and using her sexuality to give the illusion that she’s in control of her life). It’s good to see her tackle a variety or roles and I’m increasingly impressed with her work.
But no matter how good the two leads are, it appears Wiesen was far too close to the material in order to reasonably edit himself. At one stage, the film was going to be called Homework (Netflix still listed it this way as of June 7th). If anything, that banal title may be more apropos considering the cliff the script jumps off in the last 20 minutes. Everything, and no I’m not being facetious – EVERYTHING that wraps up the story comes out of some trite, cliché, heavy handed, feel-good handbook that nullifies the pain and angst built into the characters over the course of the film.
This wasn’t even a case of rooting for the main characters to end up alone and broken, as I so often do. I simply want a film, and by “a film” I mean this film, to be consistent and logically follow the constructs set from the outset. It’s a disservice to the actors who do all that they can and a slap in the face to audiences suckered into thinking this might not be just another cookie-cutter romantic dramedy (ugh, yet another sub-genre).
Also, there are a number of scenes where the kids are out at bars apparently drinking alcohol. Sure, they’re the cool kids so they probably have fake IDs but it’s never addressed. Not being a New Yorker, is this really commonplace? Did I spend all that time in Tijuana between the ages of 18 and 21 senselessly? I could have been happily imbibing a few tall, cool ones in some hip borough of the Big Apple rather than taking sketchy taxis to dirty clubs with who knows what in the appropriately cheap drinks? Damn.
In giving The Art of Getting By a D+, I almost feel too generous. Highmore and Roberts give excellent performances but the resolution undercuts all that could have been. Fans of these up and coming actors are much better off waiting for this to hit the home market than plunking down the cash at even a matinee price. The only heart getting broken will be yours when you realize how special this could have been … only it’s not (*tear*).
The Art of Getting By hit theaters on June 17, 2011 and is rated PG-13 for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking and partying.