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The Art of Getting By

by on June 16, 2011
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I liked the idea of “The Art of Getting By” more than the movie they actually made. It’s about a disaffected New York teenager coasting through life without any ambition or direction. It boasts an affecting performance by Freddie Highmore and for awhile it seems to have a “Harold and Maude” vibe, which is a very good thing.

The film is written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, making his feature-film debut. It’s serious, earnest and dares to treat high school-age characters like actual human beings harboring thoughts and contradictions. Ultimately, though, the movie spins away from itself and falls into familiar tropes about boys and girls and what happens when they’re too scared to say how they feel.

Still, if it’s ultimately a failure then it’s a well-meaning one — the kind made by people who care about storytelling and don’t just want to blow things up for a living. We’ve already got one Michael Bay, and that’s enough. We need more Gavin Wiesens, or at least more movies from this one.

Highmore, showing hardly a trace of his native British accent, plays George Zinavoy, a senior at the prestigious Morgan School in Manhattan. George doodles all day in his textbooks and never turns in any homework. The teachers and faculty treat him with a sort of resigned patience, hoping their frequent expressions of disappointment will get him back on track. It’s not working.

“I’m the Teflon slacker,” George says, with a hint of boastfulness.

The principal, played by Blair Underwood, has to endure having George call him “Bill,” since it’s apparently one of those progressive schools that only the very rich could come up with to indulge their children. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if I’d called my 11th-grade algebra teacher, Mrs. White, by her first name. I think my keister would still be wearing the impression of her foot.

I greatly enjoyed Jarlath Conroy as the art teacher, who curses at students, punches them affectionately and demands they pour their souls into their work. He’d be an inspiration to hundreds of students, except that he’d get canned after less than a week on the job. Alicia Silverstone plays the frumpy literature instructor, a fact that instantly made me feel ancient.

George’s mother (Rita Wilson) is harried and distracted, and his stepdad (Sam Robards) thinks their relationship can consist entirely of stern pep talks.

George falls into an unlikely friendship with Sally (Emma Roberts), a pretty, popular girl who sees in him something deeper than the callow rich boys constantly hitting on her. Tall and gangly, with unkempt hair falling in his eyes, George wanders about in an overcoat not because he’s trying to make a statement, but simply because he likes the protection of extra layers.

It doesn’t take much foresight to see what’s coming. George and Sally spend much of the school year bonding and growing closer, except George is so enraptured with his outsider status that he can’t bring himself to do anything as obvious as kiss the girl.

There’s also a slightly older artist, Dustin (Michael Angarano), an effortlessly cool dude who becomes George’s mentor and later, swept up by a wave of inevitability, a competitor.

“The Art of Getting By” is a well-intentioned story about a slacker. Pity that a movie with so much potential took the easy way out.

3.5 Yaps

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