In the sudden current rush of coming-of-age movies, there is nothing especially inventive or original about The Art of Getting By, but thanks to talented first-time writer-director Gavin Wiesen, it has more charm and wit than most of its J.D. Salinger-inspired cousins in the same genre, and is undeniably engaging.
At life’s crucial turning point of age 17, brilliant but cynical George (played by Freddie Highmore, who made a splash at 11 opposite Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie’s adolescent muse who inspired Peter Pan in Finding Neverland) is a high-school senior who doesn’t believe in homework. In fact, George hasn’t cracked a book all year. Like most kids today who don’t know anything unless they read it on their laptops, George says, “6.8 billion people on the planet, and none of them will survive. Why should I spend my life figuring how the square root of a hypotenuse will alter my fate?” George has gotten through 12 years of school just by showing up, a loner with no friends who calls himself a “Teflon slacker.” If he doesn’t get into a decent college, how is he ever going to land a job or earn a living? George doesn’t care. A talented artist, he withdraws into his art books, listens to Leonard Cohen, reads Camus and dotes on Truffaut movies, avoiding confrontations with anything that sounds like real life.
Until, that is, he meets “The Girl”—a popular, defiant misfit named Sally Howe (Emma Roberts, who starred in the disastrous Nancy Drew)—when he takes the rap after she’s caught smoking on the school roof. Sally introduces him to parties, kissing and breaking all the rules, even going so far as to aggressively offer to help him lose his virginity. In Sally, he finds a soulmate. These are affluent New York kids in private schools, filled with anxieties and prescription antidepressants like their parents, no strangers to Ritalin, Lexipro and Valium, living in fabulous apartments and brownstones and fraught with the daily rituals of domestic crisis. Sally has a twice-divorced mom prowling the singles dating-hell scene with a vengeance who treats her more like a roommate than a daughter. George’s security blanket suddenly lands in the rag bin when his perfect stepfather (the excellent Sam Robards) goes bankrupt and files for divorce, leaving his estranged mother, Vivian (Rita Wilson), a brittle businesswoman, with her credit cards maxed out and their apartment on the market. Meanwhile, George’s principal (Blair Underwood) offers him an ultimatum: either make up every test and homework assignment for the entire year or face expulsion before graduation. And he’s got only three weeks to do it. With all of his resourcefulness, and Sally’s help, George realizes at last that the art of getting by is no longer an option.
Mr. Highmore, who has surrendered his cute-kid status, does a very nice job of portraying a modern-day Holden Caulfield. Unfocused, he has a lot of sensitivity and intelligence, but not much talent for applying for a position in the world at large. He’s not sure where he’s going, or where he’s been, but he’s very certain he can stay grounded as long as he stands still long enough to make sense out of wherever he is. Mr. Wiesen’s screenplay makes him a likeable character of contradictions—sweet but obnoxious, a good enough student that his teachers want him to succeed despite his resistance, an isolated brat still compassionate about his parents and desperate for affection. The divide between the kids and the adults is very realistically drawn. Unlike most recent coming-of-age movies, this one gets by on more than capricious eccentricity and sentimentality. It has something called heart.
THE ART OF GETTING BY
Running time 84 minutes
Written and directed by Gavin Wiesen
Starring Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano