Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Art of Getting By: Does just fine

The Art of Getting By (2011) • View trailer for The Art of Getting By
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual content, profanity, teen drinking and smoking, and thematic elements
By Derrick Bang

Motivation is an odd and elusive presence in our lives, and I often wonder why more people don’t suffer its absence.

Sure, we can cite personal drive and/or an awareness of responsibility — to family, friends and self — but what really makes us get up each morning with a willingness to tackle the new day?
The shy and withdrawn George (Freddie Highmore) doesn't understand why
Sally (Emma Roberts) suddenly is willing to hang out with him, but that's not
a bad thing. The trouble is, George hasn't the faintest notion of what to do next
with a pretty girl, just as he hasn't a clue how to handle life itself. And such
protracted inactivity can only lead to heartbreak...

George (Freddie Highmore), a New York high school senior, can’t find that intangible get-up-and-go. Part of the problem is fatalism: an awareness of overwhelmingly bad world events that render trigonometry homework rather insignificant by comparison. Additionally, George is crushingly lonely and has turned this isolation into a pose that rebuffs all meaningful contact, whether with peers at school or his mother and step-father at home.

In a word, George is the ultimate slacker, but with a twist: He clearly isn’t enjoying his indolence.

Writer/director Gavin Wiesen’s The Art of Getting By — which George has perfected — is a quiet, quirky little film: a sober character study of a lost soul who appears to have surrendered any willingness to seize his own self and give it a good shake. A diagnosis of clinical depression seems screamingly obvious, but Wiesen’s script never goes there; we simply wait for the moment when somewhere, somehow, George will experience the epiphany that will kick-start his enthusiasm for life, the universe and everything.

To be sure, at times Wiesen’s script plays like a lite version of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and suffers a bit for the comparison. Salinger’s book, although focused on Holden Caulfield, offered shrewd observations on the human condition; Wiesen’s film doesn’t explore much further than George’s condition.

It’s an odd role that could be off-putting if not handled properly. Lucky for us, then, that Highmore delivers just the right blend of earnest sensitivity and contrite resignation. Although he can’t be bothered to do his schoolwork, much to the growing vexation of his various teachers, George is always polite about his refusals. He’s not a “bad” kid in the usual sense; he’s simply ... lost.

Highmore, now a mature 19 years old, will be remembered as the engaging young actor who delivered such memorable performances in Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, August Rush and The Spiderwick Chronicles. Highmore grew up somewhere along the way; he still was a kid in 2008’s Spiderwick, yet here he is now, with the height and gangliness of near-adulthood.

With his acting chops quite intact, rest assured.

That’s crucial, because a single mis-step would transform George into an unlikable parasite: somebody wasting the very air he breathes. And yet this never happens; we sense an artistic soul waiting to burst forth, thanks to the complex and often provocative doodles with which he fills all his textbooks and classroom worksheets.

Cool, we think; art class must be a cathartic release each day. But even here, George can’t muster the enthusiasm to complete an actual assignment. His doodles may suggest talent — even his crusty art teacher senses this — but George hasn’t yet found his muse.

George's world view changes when he impulsively takes a mild reprimand for Sally (Emma Roberts), one of the school’s more popular girls. Long intrigued by George’s self-imposed isolation — further emphasized by his ubiquitous trenchcoat — Sally exploits this opening as a means to get closer to him. Although wary of this unexpected attention, George responds to her interest; she’s kind and fun to talk to, and besides, who wouldn’t want to be seen in such a girl’s company?

Sally is George’s dynamic opposite: flirty, fashionably dressed and an enthusiastic member of the school’s social scene. Roberts perhaps isn’t quirky enough to persuasively sell this part; at times, Sally’s wardrobe makes a stronger character statement than the actress inhabiting the clothes. (Take a bow, costume designer Erika Munro.) But that’s an unfairly harsh generalization; much of Sally’s appeal comes from her seductive atmosphere of provocative mystery, and Roberts — a sidelong, mischievously serene glance frequently escaping her blond locks — nails that mood.

Sally has numerous friends, two of whom — Will (Marcus Carl Franklin) and Zoe (Sasha Spielberg) — generously accept George into their circle. But it’s an uneasy fit; George isn’t comfortable in this world, although he’s willing to try, if only to remain close to Sally.

George also admits another outsider to his life: Dustin (Michael Angarano), a school alum on his way to becoming a professional artist. Dustin has everything necessary for a properly bohemian lifestyle: a converted warehouse studio in a seedy part of the city, a vacuously blobby, painterly oeuvre that everybody finds “cool,” and a lofty maturity that makes us smile with amusement, given that this new “mentor” can’t be more than a few years older than George himself.

But it’s no pose: Dustin truly is observant and wise. He immediately senses the depth of George’s interest in Sally, and cautions against losing a good thing through inactivity. In a nice bit of parallel structure, this advice complements the warning Sally gets from her cheerfully promiscuous mother (Elizabeth Reaser), who — with the perception of considerable experience — advises her daughter not to toy with the raw, inexperienced emotions of “the good ones.”

Sally and her laissez-faire mother have achieved a truce of sorts: an understanding that the young woman is more or less emancipated, while continuing to live under her mom’s roof. They seem content with this understanding. That’s not the case with George and his mother (Rita Wilson, as Vivian); she’s genuinely bewildered by her only son’s behavior, and clueless about how to handle him. Her lack of response feels wrong, at first, but — as we eventually learn — Vivian has other issues demanding her time and concern.

Unfortunately, George’s slacker behavior has caught up with him. High school graduation is looming, and the sympathetic but firm principal (Blair Underwood) — whose secretary George knows on a first-name basis — repeatedly warns that time is running out. Having ignored an entire year of schoolwork, George is in no position to graduate ... and failure to do so, the principal warns, will affect the rest of his life.

“Just getting by” doesn’t cut it in the real world.

Wiesen’s odd little film — pleasantly weird (Sally’s word of choice for George) in the same way as George himself — is engaging for the way its story develops in a manner akin to its protagonist. Initially just as unfocused and seemingly random as the wayward George, the various elements of Wiesen’s script gradually, almost sneakily coalesce. We suddenly perceive an investment in these characters: all of them.

This isn’t a flashy story by any means, nor does Wiesen indulge in excess padding; at an economical 84 minutes, these characters waste none of their screen time. The performances are mostly quiet but always appealing, and Wiesen — making a noteworthy feature debut as both writer and director — benefits from a solid ensemble cast. Although Highmore and Roberts carry the film, Angarano, Wilson, Underwood and Reaser bring considerable weight to their scenes, as well. And yes, that’s Alicia Silverstone, as one of George’s teachers.

New York is the perfect setting for such a story, and the result — deftly shaped by Wiesen — is a sweet little parable that builds to the final, significant, three-word moral that Underwood’s Principal Martinson delivers in his final scene.

And that, ultimately, is why we get up each morning.

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