Sundance 2011 Review: THE ART OF GETTING BY (a.k.a. HOMEWORK)

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
June 16th, 2011

Editor's note: This review was originally published on January 24, 2011 as a Sundance Film Festival review.

Rating: 1.5/5

Writer: Gavin Wiesen
Director: Gavin Wiesen
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser, Blair Underwood, Rita Wilson

George Zinavoy has presumably read The Catcher in the Rye a few too many times. The high school senior fancies himself a fatalist, rebelliously skipping school to smoke cigarettes and to take himself on cultural excursions around New York City. But George’s disdain for convention and rigidity is thrown off by one major obstacle – at heart, he’s just a sweet and slightly lost kid. Freddie Highmore’s George tosses off one-liners like “I fear life” and “I’m kinda a misanthrope” with no fire behind them, because he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. Strangely enough, this is THE ART OF GETTING BY in a nutshell – it tosses off all the classic lines but there’s no fire, no guts, and nothing to believe.

In Gavin Wiesen’s feature debut, we follow young George as he attempts to finish up his senior year at a private NYC prep school. But George has much more to deal with than sneaking off to puff on a cig. There’s the trouble at home with his mother and stepfather, the fact he has no friends, his raging crush on school beauty Sally (Emma Roberts), a new mentor (Michael Angarano) who’s incredibly inept at actually inspiring his pupil, and the central issue of THE ART OF GETTING BY – that George has stopped doing it (his homework, that is). Want to flunk out of school quickly? Just stop doing work. Without any homework in his hand, George is going to be kicked out of school, which means he will never get into college, and we all know what sort of futureless ingrates the non-college-educated become (at least, that’s what THE ART OF GETTING BY would have you believe).

But what happens when things start going George’s way, mainly in the form of a friendship with the lovely Sally? Well, spoiler alert, his homework still doesn’t get done, but George is finally able to see outside of his narrow and dark worldview to the possibility of good around him. And while this certainly sounds like a sweet little coming-of-age indie, it’s not. Because it’s actually every other “sweet little coming-of-age indie” film you have ever seen. THE ART OF GETTING BY slips into the territory of the derivative and becomes a gutless, bloodless amalgam of every other “indie” romantic tweefest you’ve ever seen before you can even realize it. If you have ever seen any other film that even remotely resembles THE ART OF GETTING BY, you will see every beat of the film coming a mile away.

Freddie Highmore is steadily growing into a fine young actor – a fine young actor who is still interesting to watch, even in the midst of working in this head-thumpingly dull dreck. When Highmore is allowed to stretch even a feather of his acting wings, he can do real and effective work with just his eyes alone. Emma Roberts, an actress who is usually appealing to watch, is instead mired in a role that only exists in the lightest of shades. Sally doesn’t even qualify as the indie favorite “manic pixie dream girl.” She’s the equivalent of a cardboard standee for any “girl that got away.” The two are trapped by wooden dialogue, a distractingly loose concept of timeline, and a central relationship that is hard to feel anything for. Both actors deserve something better, but THE ART OF GETTING BY does not deliver it.

THE ART OF GETTING BY clocks in at under ninety minutes, but it feels tediously longer. Even the interesting bits that Wiesen does weave in – such as a subplot involving George’s discovery of his stepfather’s secret life and a truly wonderful soundtrack – are not enough to save the film from being both ultimately spineless and startlingly unoriginal.

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