The Art of Getting By, entitled Homework when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is an epitome of the quirky, coming of age trend the fest has pushed. It's a hollow but likable enough comedy headed for modest box office. George (Freddie Highmore) is a brilliant and artistic young Manhattanite with one of those bogus movie problems: somehow, he's convinced himself life isn't worth living without becoming blatantly depressed or suicidal. He's just decided there isn't any reason to do his homework.
We're in Noah Baumbach territory, where the kids all live in ravishing brownstones and lofts, call their parents by their first names and speak like third year college philosophy students —or at least as much like them as writer/director Gavin Weisen can make them sound. George is a sketch of a character, defined mostly by his overcoat, bead-head hairdo and the quality of his consumer choices (he reads Camus, listens to Leonard Cohen and takes a girl to see Francois Truffaut's The Last Metro, all shorthand for a depth George himself lacks).
There's The Girl of course, named Sally, played by Emma Roberts with a rather brittle air that's supposed to be charming. George worships Sally from the moment he sees her, and she seems to reciprocate. But he can't bring himself to make a move, even when Sally takes him out for a "friendly" Valentine's Day dinner and asks him directly to sleep with her. He's a putz in other words, and his issues are vaporous and manufactured —petty obstacles, fabricated to be resolved in an orgy of wish fulfillment in the film's final reels.
The thoroughly proficient production values of <em>The Art of Getting By</em> make it go down easy—first timer Weisen can obviously handle a crew, and should have no trouble garnering a career based on the available evidence. He's a lazy screenwriter though —the kind who addresses implausibilities in his story by having the characters state them directly and refute them rather than by solving them. George's apathy, lack of motivation and certainty of the meaninglessness of life understandably frighten his parents, but he isn't on medication and he isn't in therapy. Given the upscale Manhattan milieu, this detail borders on the science fictional. So George just says out loud that everything was tried but nothing worked and then calls himself the "Teflon" depressive, getting the laugh as a way of eliding a serious subject.
Though it would be hard to overestimate the importance of the Sundance Film Festival in the cultivation and dissemination of offbeat American movie product, it still resembles the studio system it rebels against in some important ways. The foremost among these is the way it honors trends and has a tendency to repeat itself.
In the 1990s, there were years when the Quentin Tarantino clones came so thick and fast that Tarantino regular Tim Roth coined a name for the genre: the "Gun/Fuck Off" movie, defined by two guys standing with guns aimed at each other's faces, shouting "Fuck off!" "No YOU fuck off!" etc. We're now in the post-(500) Days of Summer era, where a festival that has always been a sucker for quirky coming of age dramas is booking them as avidly as Hollywood makes movies about supermen in tights.
At the end of The Art of Getting By, graduation day is coming, and there's some doubt about whether or not George will get his diploma. The formerly compassionate principal literally hands George his cap and gown, says "Put this on just in case," and tells him to sit in the auditorium ready to graduate, and that he'll know he made it if they call his name. The movie wants its ticking clock, so it has a kindly and fatherly character place a student he knows has a mood disorder inside a waking nightmare, where he may get to watch all his peers graduate and then be publicly humiliated, sitting there in his graduation wardrobe like a jilted bride who's never called to the altar. In other words, The Art of Getting By is a formula picture made by someone who doesn't even believe in the formula—he knows it all has to work out, we know it all has to work out, and he can't even muster an ironic wink for our trouble. Weisen himself may graduate too as a result of this dutiful assignment, but it will be to the world of Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon movies. And that really isn't supposed to be what Sundance is about.
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Alicia Silverstone, Blair Underwood and Rita Wilson
Director/Screenwriter: Gavin Weisen
Producers: P. Jennifer Dana, Kara Baker, Gia Walsh and Darren Goldberg
Running time: 84 min
Release date: June 17, 2011