Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Rita Wilson, Blair Underwood, Alicia Silverstone WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Gavin Wiesen MPAA RATING
Rated PG-13 RUNNING TIME
84 Mins. DISTRIBUTED BY
Fox Searchlight DVD EXTRAS
New York Slice of Life * On Young Love * Fox Movie Channel Presents – In Character with Freddie Highmore * Fox Movie Channel Presents – Direct Effect: Gavin Wiesen * Audio Commentary with Director Gavin Wiesen
The Art of Getting By seems to be the perfect title for a film in which first-time feature writer/director Gavin Wiesen is doing just that, getting by. The film has a few things going for it, namely Freddie Highmore's usual dependable performance and solid supporting turns from Blair Underwood and Alicia Silverstone (Yes, Really!).
Originally titled Homework, a more juvenile and tongue-in-cheek approach than the studio execs obviously wanted to take, virtually every moment of the film's sparse 84-minute running time feels intentionally stylized, faux dramatic and pretentiously emo. It's amazing that Belle & Sebastian are nowhere to be found within the film's emotional Cliff's Notes.
George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore, Finding Neverland/August Rush) is a trenchcoat wearin', Camus readin' emo boy whose fatalistic views toward life have started to sabotage his future as he floats through high school without doing his homework (See, the Homework title works!). He's on the verge of not graduating, not a particularly good thing considering his parents (Rita Wilson and Sam Robards) seem attached to his going to college. When he plays the good guy and takes the fall for an attractive yet domestically challenged classmate, Sally (Emma Roberts), an awkward dance of friendship with sprinklings of romance begins and George begins to see cracks in his fatalistic views.
Of course, even in 84 minutes there will be inevitable conflicts and obstacles, most notably that of an artist mentor of George's (Michael Angarano, Almost Famous & Gentlemen Broncos) who takes a bit of a shine to Sally. Is there hope? Of course there isn't, but even moderately indie Fox Searchlight isn't about to let a totally fatalistic pic hit the big screen and it's inevitable that the pic's faux fatalism will encounter a healthy dose of Hallmark sentimentality by the closing credits.
The good news is that Freddie Highmore, who leaped to fame alongside Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland, darn near rescues the pic himself with a performance that somehow manages to be emotionally resonant despite cliche'd dialogue and choppy character development that makes it nearly impossible to buy into George's fatalism or burgeoning romanticism. While the lack of development occasionally makes his performance feel lacking in authenticity, it's clear that this is one former child actor who has what it takes to keep acting into his adult years. It's remarkable, as well, that Highmore's long-standing pronounced British accent is nearly gone here and Highmore still gives a convincing, effective performance.
The same can't be said for the promising yet emotionally vacant turn by Emma Roberts, who's able to exude Sally's charm but who either receives poor direction or simply can't quite tap into the young girl's more emotionally complex moments. At times, George is pouring out his soul to this girl and you half expect her to go all Ke$ha on him and say "I like your beard."
For the record, Highmore doesn't have a beard in the film.
As George's stern yet compassionate principal, Blair Underwood is a solid and steady presence while the under-developed yet warm performance of Alicia Silverstone as one of his exasperated teachers makes me question again "Why hasn't Alicia Silverstone had a more significant Hollywood career?"
The Art of Getting By received mixed reviews when it played at Sundance, and it seems destined to get left in the dust when it opens this weekend alongside Ryan Reynolds and Green Lantern. The film most brings to mind Robert Pattinson's indie Remember Me, another film that felt so intentionally indie that it was hard to buy into it at all. Despite a solid performance from Highmore and a couple supporting players, it's difficult to really recommend a film that is trying so hard and yet accomplishes so little.
Virtually every aspect of the film's production disappoints, from Alec Puro's too emo for words original music, D.P. Ben Kutchins' uncomfortably stylized camera work that occasionally serves up dramatic close-ups that lose focus and choppy and inconsistent editing from Mollie Goldstein. With an edge as sharp as a butter knife and an anarchic spirit that makes Michael Cera's Youth in Revolt appear to be downright revolutionary, one can only conclude that the ultimate weakness in The Art of Getting By is that writer/director Gavin Wiesen, rather ironically, failed to do his own homework and what could have been an edgy, emotionally resonant film feels more like High School Musical with an attitude.