This know-it-all has lots to learn
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 17, 2011
What teenager hasn’t felt, at some point, that life is screwed up? It’s a natural adolescent reaction to embarrassing parents, boring teachers, pointless homework assignments and the perplexing behavior of the opposite sex. Not to mention a world roiled by wars, global warming and financial disaster. Add hormones into the mix, and why even bother getting out of bed in the morning?
In “The Art of Getting By,” George (Freddie Highmore) is such a kid. Smart and artistically talented, but profoundly unmotivated, the movie’s high-school hero makes two classic mistakes. The first is thinking that he will always feel this way. The second is thinking that he’s the first person in the history of the world to do so.
It’s forgivable, though. He’s still young. He’ll grow out of it.
Less forgivable is the fact that writer-director Gavin Wiesen also treats George like this. Under the first-time feature filmmaker’s indulgent gaze, George is presented like some sort of Byronic genius, an eccentric loner who really does feel things more deeply than anyone else, when all evidence suggests that he’s really not all that different from other kids. Even George’s sketchbooks, which are presented as proof of his artistic gifts, don’t look much better than the doodles you’d find in any artsy high-schooler’s backpack.
In other words, there’s no sense of perspective here. Because George believes the world revolves around him, it does.
For anyone not in a similar state of age-related solipsism — i.e., anyone outside the 16- to 25-year-old age bracket — this is more than a little annoying.
George’s misanthropy is annoying. George’s underachievement is annoying. And, when he meets and then — surprise! — falls in love with Sally (Emma Roberts), a beautiful classmate who makes him reevaluate his commitment to both misanthropy and underachievement, his change of heart is annoying.
Wiesen, for his part, would have you believe that he’s the first filmmaker in the history of the world to come up with this twist, too.
More annoying still — and kind of unbelievable, except to those who think “Gossip Girl” is a documentary — is the larger world inhabited by George and Sally. Set in the milieu surrounding their private Manhattan prep school, “The Art of Getting By” takes place in a parallel universe where there appears to be no minimum drinking age. Sally and George appear in scene after scene — a Valentine’s Day dinner in a restaurant, a nightclub party, cocktails with Sally’s mom (Elizabeth Reaser) — consuming alcohol without impediment.
And speaking of Sally’s mom, who also makes a wildly inappropriate sexual comment to George in front of her daughter, she’s not the only bad role model. Aside from some perfunctory attempts at actual discipline and instruction from the school faculty, the grown-ups here pretty much leave the movie’s bratty protagonists to negotiate the adult world on their own, thank you very much. This makes their sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude for the obvious privilege that they bask in beyond ironic.
Some may relate to George and Sally. Others may want to take both of them over their knees and spank them.
Contains obscenity, a brief scuffle, underage drinking and smoking.