The Art of Getting By is a screen romance that echoes its title: It gets by. Barely. It’s another wan tale of an anti-social teen who finds himself irresistible to the sweetest, prettiest girl in school. But the film has flashes of wit and some interesting teen insights. And it finishes with a message and a flourish.
Freddie Highmore is George, a disaffected senior at a New York private school. When we meet him, George has simply shut down. He’s not doing the work, not participating. He’s let his fear of death overwhelm him.
“I just couldn’t take this awareness of my mortality,” he says. (Hey, it’s better than “The dog ate my homework.”) Highmore plays George as a bit on the perky side for a boy supposedly so depressed he can barely get through the day. His support system at the school — Principal Martinsin (Blair Underwood), an English teacher (Alicia Silverstone), his art instructor (Jarlath Conroy) — won’t give up on him. His mom (Rita Wilson) has her own issues right now with his stepdad, but she plainly cares. Then George meets Sally. A mild act of rebellion by his most adorable classmate (Emma Roberts) hurls them together. She takes an interest and threatens George’s whole morose worldview.
“You have issues,” she says. “I fear life,” he answers back. It’s a friendship, not a romance. Because that’s all George can handle and she’s not forcing the issue. Well, not much. He ignores the make-your-move romantic advice of an artist-mentor (Michael Angarano, very good), content to continue his “Teflon slacker” shtick.
Writer-director Gavin Wiesen doesn’t have much new to say here. This is Igby Goes Down and Thumbsucker by way of Metropolitan; smart, arty private-school kids flirting and skipping school to see French films because they have to cope with life in New York City. Elizabeth Reaser turns up as Sally’s too-flirtatious mom, suggesting what the girl might see in this boy who isn’t all over her. For all the talk of what George is doing to his “future” with his senior-year meltdown, all the peer group advice on this non-romance romance that Sally and George struggle with, Reaser’s character is the one with the pithiest take. Of men, she says, “I’ve played with their affections most of my life. With the good ones, though, it’s just not right.”
The movie plays with our affections, too. Highmore pitches George as sensitive, self-absorbed but not obnoxiously so, so we get why Sally might be drawn to him.
But Wiesen never makes it easy for us to root for them as a couple. It’s a tender age and a tender subject, and not making it a “romantic comedy” could have placed this in (500) Days of Summer or Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist terrain. But Getting By never ever gets over that way.
(c) 2011, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.