The title nicely sums up The Art of Getting By. This trifling teen tale of first love artfully dodges any pretense of substance or authenticity, trying to scrape by on the charms of its almost intolerably cute cast.
There’s an ease and playfulness that carries along writer-director Gavin Wiesen’s debut film for a while.
Yet the indie production, which premiered under its original title Homework at January’s Sundance Film Festival, plays out as blandly and predictably as a Hollywood teen romance, the characters artificial, the story hollow.
As a troubled youth on the verge of throwing his life away before it’s begun, Freddie Highmore behaves weirdly even-keeled, his rebelliousness cloaked in a Zen-like calm, like a heavily sedated cousin of Catcher in the Rye hero Holden Caulfield.
As the object of his affection, Emma Roberts is similarly one-dimensional in the opposite direction, a whirlwind whose pretty perkiness feels phony and soon grows tiresome.
Still, they make for an adorable couple, and Wiesen milks a few enjoyable moments out of his lead actors and some of the supporting cast, particularly Elizabeth Reaser as Roberts’ amorous mom.
Graduating to a more grown-up role after starring in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland, Highmore plays George Zinavoy, an aimless kid coasting through his senior year at a New York City private school.
George is politely disobedient to teachers and school administrators (including Blair Underwood and Alicia Silverstone), who issue stern warnings while inexplicably indulging this spoiled brat’s behavior. Really, how many educators would put up with a high school student mockingly calling them by their first names?
A thin, contrived encounter abruptly makes loner George the new best friend of Sally Howe (Roberts), who by rights should be head cheerleader, class president, prom queen, and every other position of school status that looks and smarts can buy.
Conveniently, though, Sally has only a few superficial pals. She and George embark on a relationship that has him both falling in love and falling into that dreaded category of, from Sally’s viewpoint, “just friends.”
“You’re my only real friend,” Sally says. “Let’s not ruin it.”
Then George picks up a mentor in young painter Dustin (Michael Angarano). George unwisely introduces Sally and Dustin, between whom sparks begin to fly.
Again, how original.
The other crises in George’s life feel just as false. At home, there’s financial trouble with his mom (Rita Wilson) and stepdad (Sam Robards), a 50-year-old guy whose problems are a fabricated reflection of George’s.
At school, George digs himself a hole that could keep him from graduating, if it weren’t for those kindly teachers and administrators willing to cut every corner and bend every rule to let this pretentious slacker make the grade.
The Art of Getting By is an adult’s idealization of teen life and romance, the pieces fitting perfectly, the obstacles arising speciously. The players are not so much teens as miniature adults, dissecting their own natures with insightfulness that typically comes through decades of reflection, if it comes at all.
A good little nihilist, George reads Albert Camus and copes with heartache by listening to the same Leonard Cohen song all night long.
Maybe filmmaker Wiesen was into Camus and Cohen back in high school, but very few other teenagers are. In that regard and almost every other, The Art of Getting By is a portrait of con artistry that never presents people you can believe in or care about.
THE ART OF GETTING BY
Written and directed by Gavin Wiesen. A Fox Searchlight release, playing at Rave Franklin Park and Levis Commons and rated PG-13 for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking, and partying. Running time: 83 minutes.
Critic's rating: ** 1/2
George Zinavoy .......... Freddie Highmore
Sally Howe .......... Emma Roberts
Vivian Sargent .......... Rita Wilson
Charlotte Howe ........... Elizabeth Reaser
***** Outstanding; **** Very Good; *** Good; ** Fair; * Poor.