Movie Review: The Art of Getting By (2011)

The Art of Getting By movie review

Emma Roberts and Freddie Highmore in The Art of Getting By
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Ahhh, the strumming of the acoustic guitar, “angsty” white teens, lavish New York apartments and an introvert that just can’t find inspiration. It must be another one of those Sundance Film Festival pickups copied over from years and years of success stories that will tug at our heart-strings, make us laugh and possibly even cry. Yup, The Art of Getting By has read the book on how to make an indie film and get it picked up at Sundance as it throws just about every dumb plot point at you until you’re wondering if it’s depicting an alternate universe.

We’ll start with George, played by Freddie Highmore, who is much taller than the 12-year-old we met in Finding Neverland but still looks like he could be in grade school. George is described as a fatalist, which is accurate, but you could also call him a defeatist in that this loner of a private school senior has pretty much called it quits. What drives him? Nothing. What’s he want to do? Nothing. Did he do his homework? Nope. But does he know the answers? Yup. My god, this kid is a genius! What? He’s also a talented artist? Get me a canvas and a Campbell’s Soup can, we have some work to do.

Then there’s Sally, played by Emma Roberts, who doesn’t really play Sally all that different than she did her character in It’s Kind of a Funny Story. This isn’t a slam, but I’m just wondering when we are going to finally see some serious growth as an actress out of her. Admittedly, I did like her turn in Scream 4 as a nice diversion from crap like Valentine’s Day, but that’s hardly high drama.

Anyway, Sally sees something in George after he takes the blame for her smoking while on school grounds. Of course, such a grandiose display of chivalry causes an instant connection and gradually they become close friends. However, George’s lack of self confidence continually prevents him from opening up and revealing his true feelings to her, so he does the next best thing, he sabotages the relationship. Add to that his parents’ relationship is falling apart and his lack of attention in school results in him getting three days to make up an entire semester. Don’t worry your pretty little head though. You call that a challenge? Not for George. Cue an indie song, George is getting to work.

Now I won’t tell you what happens beyond this point, but I will say there are two moments late in the game that had me rolling my eyes, shaking my head and slamming my hands down in frustration as I saw first-time feature writer/director Gavin Wiesen making mistakes beyond those he’d already made in moments that could have turned this picture around enough to be tolerable. Yet, while he fell into making the same mistakes every single one of these crummy indie rom-coms makes time and again, I have to also say the scenes that follow each of these two atrocities are some of the best I have ever seen in this kind of a film. It’s a conundrum.

The two moments I speak of above are a pair of conversations — I won’t say who with — and they are absolutely superb, not only in relation to the junk that makes up the majority of this movie, but in comparison to most movies in general. At one point I even though Wiesen was going to go all the way and take the cliched “If you love somebody, let them go. If they return, they were always yours.” theory beyond the credits, which is to say with no resolution whatsoever, leaving the audience to wonder what happened next. Sort of like two of my all-time favorite films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Considering those are the kind of moments and risky endings indie films were made for, it’s disappointing he didn’t, but you can see he definitely was at least on the right track.

As far as the rest of the cast is concerned it was nice to see Blair Underwood on the screen and I get the impression that now that he’s moving up there in age we may be seeing a lot more of him. As promising as his star was about 12 years ago he never seemed to choose the right projects, but he still has a lot of talent and I definitely see more work for him in the future.

Joining Highmore in the “growing up” category is Michael Angarano who is now in his early twenties and plays an artist George finds himself looking up to. Angarano is fine in the role, but the path the character takes is one of the film’s major missteps.

Speaking of growing up, what is the drinking age in New York? 16? Because that’s about how old Highmore looks, and Roberts doesn’t look any older than the 18-year-old character she plays. Yet, there are several scenes where these two high school seniors are out drinking in clubs and in one scene we see them both sitting down in a bar, nursing a couple of 22 ouncers. Is this what 18-year-old high school students are doing now? Just rolling into a bar, ordering a 22 and hashing out life’s problems? Does this ring true in any way? What, was a coffee house where Wiesen drew the line on cliche storytelling tropes?

Despite all my negativity toward this film, I see glimmers of promise in Wiesen as a filmmaker and a screenwriter, but his confidence in taking a risk and going all the way doesn’t seem to be there yet. Instead he chose to follow the path of any number of films before him from the heavy amount of acoustic guitar, trying to pull as much somber emotion out of the audience it can, and then leading the story into all the other corners of indie cliche. The film left me frustrated and mad considering the best moments come at the end of the story… once it has already been destroyed.