Freddie Highmore as George Zinavoy
Emma Roberts as Sally Howe
Michael Angarano as Dustin
Sasha Spielberg as Zoe Rubenstein
Marcus Carl Franklin as Will Sharpe
Ann Dowd as Mrs. Grimes
Maya Ri Sanchez as Cynthia
Blair Underwood as Principal Martinson
Ann Harada as Mrs. Dougherty
Rita Wilson as Vivian Sargent
Jarlath Conroy as Harris McElroy
Elizabeth Reaser as Charlotte Howe
Andrew Levitas as Javier
Sam Robards as Jack Sargent
Alicia Silverstone as Ms. Herman
Directed by Gavin Wiesen
George (Freddie Highmore) is a high school slacker, a smart well-read artist who lacks direction in life until he meets Sally (Emma Roberts), a more sophisticated girl who introduces George to a wilder side of New York. He is instantly smitten which makes it even harder for him to concentrate on schoolwork, and at the same time, he learns his stepfather has been sneaking around during the day instead of going to work.
It’s always interesting to see how films and your opinions of them change from their premieres before the excitable audiences at the Sundance Film Festival to their theatrical release. While Gavin Wiesen’s debut hasn’t changed that much, just changing the title from “Homework” to “The Art of Getting By,” complete with studio-friendly opening credits, creates a different dynamic that makes it hard to adjust to, even if it still mostly works as well as before.
In some ways, it’s similar to the recent “Submarine,” a coming-of-age story of a loner dealing with domestic strife at home who finds a girl who helps him forget about that. Maybe the fact that I coasted through my own years of high school or maybe it’s all the great New York locations (including the Cup and Saucer where I get my coffee every single morning) that makes Wiesen’s debut so immediately relatable, but it somehow manages to rise above the normal “first love coming-of-age” clichés that tend to be so commonplace in movies about high school students.
It takes a bit of time to get used to Freddie Highmore being all grown-up with an American accent, maybe because he gives a fairly lifeless monochromatic performance, which makes it hard to empathize with him. It’s surprising considering the amount of emotion Highmore was able to evoke in his earlier roles, and his delivery feels flat comparatively. Meanwhile, Emma Roberts is solidifying her status as teen dreamgirl after last year’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” playing a very similar role in a movie with a similar tone and dynamic with her young male lead. She has the potential to be a terrific actress, but she’s not given a lot to challenge herself. And yet, the relationship between the two of them somehow works, maybe because every guy has had that girl they hung out with knowing that it could never possibly work.
When Michael Angarano shows up as Dustin, a slightly older artist who takes on the role or George’s mentor, he immediately set his sights on Sally but backs off and offers George advice on winning her. When Dustin ends up hooking up with Sally creating further conflict in George’s life, it’s not that shocking, but Angarano takes an unexpected route by making the character sympathetic with his remorse about falling for Sally, a decision that says a lot about how Angarano has grown as an actor and does a lot for the film’s understated love triangle.
Otherwise, the film bounces between George’s life at home, school and his time hanging with Sally and her friends, giving a pretty full cross-section of what life as a high school kid living in New York City might be like. The adult characters circle around the younger leads like satellites with Rita Wilson standing out as George’s mother just as Alicia Silverstone sticks out like a sore thumb as one of George’s worried teachers.
Wiesen’s choice in combining new and old music creates something that won’t ostracize older viewers who may not care much for a movie about teenagers, while adding the sense of nostalgia that’s often present in the best movies about young people.
Even though the movie does hit a few hurdles along the way, the ending really does pay off because it doesn’t go the mopey real-life route we’ve come to expect from indie films, proving that even a New York romance can have a Hollywood ending. That said, it does lose something by not having the original title of “Homework” flash at the end, which was the perfect punctuation to the story.
The Bottom Line:
A New York City boy-meets-girl story may be something we’ve seen many times before and often better, but Wiesen brings something unique to the mix. While it certainly has its share of problems in taking such a laid back approach to storytelling, the more you can relate to George’s situation, the more you’ll appreciate his journey.