"If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me," says the narrator Holden Caulfield at the beginning of J.D. Salinger's 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye.
Movies, to Holden, are, like much else in adult life, so goddamn phony. But that didn't stop the movie-makers. Salinger's story of a privileged, existentially troubled New York teenager has provided the template for an American indie genre, the quirky, sensitive, coming-of-age stories depicted in films such as Igby Goes Down, Tadpole and last year's It's Kind of a Funny Story.
The Art of Getting By is distinguished by a dullness that's almost akin to being in high school again. This first feature from Gavin Wiesen (whose credits list him as an assistant to director Bruce Paltrow on the movie Duets) is about a Manhattan private-school senior named George (Freddie Highmore).
George wears a long overcoat, carries around a copy of Albert Camus's The Stranger throughout the film (the book is less than 130 pages) and smokes an occasional cigarette. Now, here's the really shocking part: He doesn't do his homework. (The film's original title was actually Homework.) Why? Because "everything's so meaningless."
Even in a meaningless universe, of course, schools have rules and George's caring, hip principal (Blair Underwood) is forced to put him on academic probation. George's teachers (Alicia Silverstone, Jarlath Conroy) are in awe of his talent but frustrated by his lack of engagement. His mom (Rita Wilson) worries - but she has other concerns because George's stepfather (Sam Robards) is having financial problems.
While stopping for a stress-relieving cigarette break on the school roof, George meets pretty, popular Sally (Emma Roberts). "You're so weird," she says. Sally has her own troubles. Her mom (Elizabeth Reaser) gives Sally and George alcohol and flirts (one teen's fun mom is another's tragic burden). Soon, George introduces Sally to his rebel ways - no, not a string of bank heists and police shootouts as you might hope - but an afternoon of cutting classes.
They go to a Louis Malle movie and eat noodles, as if they were in a Woody Allen film from 40 years ago. Sometimes they go to bars with other teens, where they're never carded, just like the kids in Gossip Girl. Inevitably, George falls in love with Sally but is too shy to express it. She wants to sleep with him, but he's scared.
Emo music from a decade ago (Pavement, the Shins) leaks onto the soundtrack. Characters walk through New York streets in sensitive slow-motion.
During school hours, George doodles in the margins of his notebooks (suggested alternative title: Noodles and Doodles). His cartooning leads him to a friendship with Dustin (Michael Angarano), a bohemian poseur/artist. George, who may not be as bright as he thinks, introduces Sally to Dustin, with predictable results. Later, George recuperates by listening to Leonard Cohen's Winter Lady over and over and over in his room.
When he recovers, he has to get all his assignments completed in the last three weeks of term, which is not exactly like Rocky setting out to win the heavyweight crown from Apollo Creed. Wasn't that what happened every year in high school?
The vapidity of The Art of Getting By goes beyond the anthill-sized dramatic stakes. The dialogue, while occasionally epigrammatic, is tone-deaf to individual speech rhythms. The characters' observations about art and literature range from trite to nonsensical, and the acting throughout has the ring of recitation.
British actor Highmore, making the transition from child roles ( Neverland, August Rush) to lanky teenhood, offers an emotionally telegraphed performance that does nothing to suggest George's purported intellectual and emotional depths.
Roberts, who was introduced as the spunky lead of Nancy Drew in 2007, does little more than shuffle through a deck of forgettable coquettish mannerisms.
The only real defence of The Art of Getting By, which is about as "goddamn phony" as indie films get, is that it makes slacking off seem so uninspiring. By comparison, trigonometry and world geography classes seem chock-a-block with pulse-pounding thrills.
The Art of Getting By
- Written and directed by Gavin Wiesen
- Starring Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts
- Classification: PG