Characters in the depths of depression are iffy for me, especially when they’re teenagers. Sometimes, I’m able to empathize with them, to feel their pain, to understand why they feel alienated and misunderstood. At other times, they seem like little more than constructs of the stories they happen to be a part of – in other words, characters who have legitimate problems blown out of proportion for the sake of forcing an emotional response from the audience. I would place George, the hero of The Art of Getting By, in the latter category. He’s played by a teenage Freddie Highmore as cross between a neurotic Woody Allen intellectual and an emo recluse, and it didn’t take me long to grow weary of his misery act. I wouldn’t say he’s unlikeable, but he does seem to be working towards being that way.
George, a senior at a New York City high school, has become so distracted by thoughts of his own mortality that he has stopped doing his homework. Quite simply, he doesn’t see the point in doing it, since it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. He makes no effort to hide this from his teachers, who, despite their patience wearing thin, are remarkably calm when speaking to him. He spends most of his class periods doodling in his textbooks, essentially using them as sketchpads. This means that he cares about his art, although if he followed his own logic, he would realize that not even that matters in the grand scheme of things. I grant you that art – be it a painting, a drawing, a book, or a movie – will last a lot longer than the artist, perhaps by centuries. But eventually, even art will fade into obscurity. It’s just a matter of lifespan.
We meet George’s mother (Rita Wilson) and stepfather (Sam Robards), who, I guess, are concerned. It’s hard to really know, since their presence in the film feels oddly detached. The stepfather is the subject of a small subplot that could have meant something were it not so contrived; when cutting school one day, George sees him walking down the street in an overcoat, which is odd because his office is on the other side of town. Why is he not at work? What is his secret? Decency prevents me from revealing it, but ultimately, it doesn’t much matter. The sole purpose of this aspect of the film, so far as I can tell, is to generate tension between husband and wife. This in turn gives George yet another reason to feel miserable and put off all his assignments.
George will befriend a classmate of the opposite sex. This would be Sally (Emma Stone), a sweet and all around likeable young woman. George is so passive that he never once entertains the notion that she likes him as more than a friend, that the two of them might actually be on their way to falling in love. This ties into a subplot involving an older man named Dustin (Michael Angarano). By “older,” I don’t mean middle aged or elderly – he looks to be around twenty-five, perhaps even thirty. He’s an artist who likes George, although apparently not enough to stay away from Sally. This paves the way for a scene that actually worked for me, simply because it depicts a mentality that I’ve witnessed firsthand. When George learns that Dustin has been with Sally (and presumably slept with her), he feels betrayed; in essence, he didn’t know what he had until it was gone.
I might have gotten something out of George’s three teachers if anyone had bothered to develop them. His math teacher (Ann Dowd) and English teacher (Alicia Silverstone) are essentially non-characters, and his art teacher (Jarlath Conroy) is a gruff, bearded Irishman who thinks nothing of physically shoving George when he fails to truly express himself. The only remotely engaging authority figure is the school principal (Blair Underwood), and even then, he’s bound by convention. He’s stern but caring, a man who wants his students to succeed and sees the potential in anyone, including George. There comes a point at which he gives him an ultimatum: Either he complete an entire year’s worth of homework in three weeks, or he doesn’t graduate. As an added bonus, he will be expelled.
If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know that I’m willing to accept films for being exactly what they are. But even overused plots should at least be engaging. What The Art of Getting By lacks is not a new story, but a reason for us to care. In real life, depressed teenagers generally have actual reasons for being the way they are, and they’re the ones who are deserving of sympathy. People like George tend to exist only in the movies, and if they do happen to be real, they’re exhibiting behavior that shouldn’t be rewarded with attention. That’s called being a drama queen. The film’s simple-mindedness is cemented with an ending so predictable that it’s basically an anticlimax. It wouldn’t be right of me to give it away, but I know you’re smarter than the movies you watch, so I’m sure you can figure it out on your own.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures