Odds are you know a kid like The Art of Getting By's George -- sullen and pretentious, not living up to his potential, angry at the world despite being an absurdly privileged American teenager. It's also likely you find that kid maddening and solipsistic, and unfortunately he's no different when portrayed onscreen by Freddie Highmore, and treated with a bizarre amount of reverence by first-time filmmaker Gavin Wiesen. The movie was picked up by Fox Searchlight at Sundance earlier this year, but before you start blaming Sundance for championing yet another cloying indie romance, be fair: nobody much liked the movie there either.
George isn't all that different from most high school underachievers in movie history, except he lives in Manhattan and goes to an expensive private school, so he's squandering a lot more opportunity. An artistic kid with textbooks full of doodles, he hasn't handed in a bit of homework for his entire year, and brushes off his mom's (Rita Wilson) attempts to help out despite the fact that she's got obvious troubles of her own. Even when cute classmate Sally (Emma Roberts) starts chatting him up he can barely be bothered to show much emotion, though we're supposed to believe the two are forging a romantic bond that will sustain them past graduation-- if George ever gets there, of course.
The only real wrench in the romance, besides George's general lack of affect, is a recent graduate of the school, a stereotypical Brooklyn artist played by Michael Angarano. The character isn't much as written, but Angarano plays him with an effective mix of an older kid's confidence and the constant panic of an early-twenytsomething trying to succeed. Angarano himself was playing high school roles as 2009, which makes his budding romance with Sally believable but also points out the horrendous job Highmore does in a role Angarano could have played. We spend a half hour watching Highmore flatly emote through trite dialogue and pretentious voiceover, wondering if it's just part of the character, then Angarano shows up to demonstrate what actual acting looks like. Highmore became famous as a child actor in films like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Finding Neverland, but he's thoroughly unprepared for the challenges of an adult leading role.
When Art of Getting By expands beyond its intolerable main character, reflecting the rarefied world of privileged Manhattan teenagers or dipping into the strange post-divorce life of Sally's mom (Elizabeth Reaser), director Wiesen shows a skill for photographing New York locations and creating characters who aren't unbearable to be around. But being the center of The Art of Getting By, George is inescapable, a pain in the ass of a main character whom Wiesen doesn't develop enough for us to see the hidden depths we're clearly supposed to relate to. He drags the movie down like an anchor, and prevents any of the genuinely good parts from pulling themselves away.
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