The Art of Getting By
Teen movies are a lot like teen problems in general, in that it’s very difficult to get anyone who isn’t a teenager to care about them. However, once in a while there comes a teen movie that is so good, it makes us forget that the lead characters are essentially spoiled, precocious twatbags. Clueless did it, Mean Girls did it and most recently, Easy A did it. These rare movies pulled it off not because the dialogue was particularly verbose, or the characters very original, but because they were honest. Honest about the fact that adolescence is irrefutably the most unlikeable stage of human growth, and that between the ages of fourteen and seventeen you are at your most vapid and shallow. The Art of Getting By is not one of these movies, but it does try. Sort of.
The movie is essentially a thinly-veiled retelling of the Catcher in the Rye, repackaged to avoid a lawsuit with the Salinger people and to appeal to the current Gossip Girl-raised generation of teens. George (Highmore) is a high school student who spends his days doodling, sneaking fags and being snide to the teachers who so desperately want him to realize his all-important potential. When the popular yet conveniently troubled Sally (Roberts) takes an amused interest in him, he is finally forced to care about something other than his own fatalistic ramblings. The two have a gloriously platonic romp through the New York middle-class. And that’s it, really.
Freddie Highmore is utterly baffling as George, an obnoxious little git who doesn’t see “the point” in homework, friends or family.What’s so infuriating about the performance is that we know Freddie Highmore. He was that cute likeable kid in Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and so there was every reason to believe that he was going to be an affable presence as a teenager. Alas, puberty hit Freddie Highmore like a ton of bricks. Bricks made from angst and Leonard Cohen.
Poorly plotted and rambling, the movie offers very little drama or stakes to rise to. The only thing approaching a climax appears when Sally, in an attempt to test her sexual power over her friend, asks if George will sleep with her. Disgusted by the possibility she may be mocking him, George stops talking to Sally. God, that even feels stupid to type. This mopey film is just barely saved by a few strong performances by the older figures in George’s life, such as his frustrated mother (Rita Wilson) and Sally’s negligent alcoholic mum (Elisabeth Reiser). Most remarkable, however, is Michael Angarano.
Angarano plays twenty-something Dustin, an artist who quickly forms a connection with George and his jail-baiting pal. Dustin is magnetic from his first shuffle into George’s art class, where he has been instructed to give a talk on his career post graduation. Explaining that “I don’t really know why I’m here. I’m not really established or anything. I just got the call and I was hungover, so I just said yes to get them off the phone” we immediately wish the film was about Dustin and not the repellent George. When he briefly steals the sexually frustrated Sally from George, we can’t help but let out a cheer.
While The Art of Getting By has a few choice moments, overall it won’t appeal to anyone over the age of seventeen. Highmore and Roberts, while admittedly giving the material their best, offer a clumsy look at being young and irritatingly verbose. If you must see a movie about disenfranchised teens in New York, you might try the 2002 gem Igby Goes Down. While The Art of Getting By will never grace the teen movie Hall of Fame, we hope that this is Freddie Highmore’s one obligatory coming of age movie before he moves on to do proper things.