The Art of Getting By feels like a paler version of a better film it could have been, or perhaps, a better film that already exists. Its performance to me was like a hospital monitor, looping up and down as it registered signs of life: up when it hit a sweetly romantic realist note, down when it descended into blah.
Freddie Highmore is George, an 18 year old boy who finds life and the world utterly futile as we’re all going to die anyway right, so what’s the point of doing homework or graduating from high school? After covering for Sally (Emma Roberts), a popular pretty girl in his year, the two of them start to awkwardly hang out together, and after striking up another friendship with chilled out cool-but-not-really-cool artist Dustin (Michael Angarano) it looks like George has finally found some direction and meaning in his life. But then things get complicated (well, obviously) and unable to deal, his world collapses again until he’s forced into making a decision that will make or break him and his future.
Crucially, the casting of Freddie Highmore is horrible. He’s not a bad actor by all means, but here, where he’s meant to be portraying a brooding emo-esque teenager with an apathy for life, he comes across as a young boy in a badly fitting long dark coat (ba-boom) who delivers his “oh what is the point” lines with a grin rather than a monotone, as if what a lark this role is to play. Which isn’t the point of it at all. He’s not mocking the character, I genuinely believe he can’t grasp what’s been asked of him and it all fails to gel. And because he doesn’t convince he is not sympathetic, intriguing or hateful – he’s just there.
Emma Roberts - who I actually quite enjoy watching as an actress – is better, but her character is so irrevocably spiky and unlikable that it’s hard to care about her either, needless to say their will they-won’t they relationship. In fact it’s hard to connect with any of the characters such is their inability to be part of the moment or incite emotion. The best on-screen dynamic comes between George and his art teacher (Jarlath Conroy) which has a sincerity to it that actually penetrates the wooden frame but it is scarce.
It’s not all bad – there are moments of authentic teenage interaction (I won’t say ‘angst’ because as far as the film strives for it, it just doesn’t have the depth) which I enjoyed, but they are few and far between and it’s all trying too hard. The friendship with the artist is just unnecessary clutter, whilst the melodrama and unintentional hilarity of the ending makes you despair. There was a point where I thought “if they end it here it will actually be quite beautiful” but then they tack on an airport scene – okay, I love airport scenes but this was just desperate – with an artificial painful “wistful” last moment between George and Sally which really does smack of a paler version of a better film that already exists – Garden State. In fact there are more than a few references to the Best Film of all Time™ - the numbness of life; the awakening of spirit from meeting a new girl; the urge to runaway and sort your life out instead of actually grabbing control this second.
The problem is The Art of Getting By has to no gravitas to exert any of the themes it’s trying to put across. I want to say it has potential – it’s director Gavin Wiesen’s debut effort – but I’m unsure if he just needs to find his own voice and style, or whether he’s badly imitating what we’ve seen before. What he needed to do here was not to think about other films at all but of real life, and by being more subtle this would have been a film worth remembering instead of shrugging your shoulders at. Still, at 83 minutes, I didn’t feel too cheated.