Ever since the 1951 book The Catcher In the Rye, stories about angsty, alienated, financially secure (mostly male) teenagers in existential crisis over "what it all means" have become a staple of movies, TV and literature. It may be easy to dismiss this as the type of privileged first world problem you only have when you don't have real problems -- like finding clean drinking water, dying of preventable illness, or being accidentally killed in a pointless war. But there've also been some great movies in this genre, and one that turned out better than expected is The Art of Getting By, largely due to the performance of its star, Freddie Highmore, who plays George, a solitary teenager who believes that the inevitability of death makes life (and doing homework) meaningless, which might lead to him having to repeat his senior year at a private New York high school. But it's funny how a cute girl can change your outlook on life, which is what happens when George meets an alluring fellow student named Sally (Emma Roberts), who makes George think that maybe there really is something worth living for. Watch the trailer for The Art of Getting By below.
Sally becomes intrigued by George after he saves her from a run-in with a teacher. Though her motives are a bit murky, she strikes up a friendship with him, introducing the socially awkward George to her world of cool friends and stylish parties, while George teaches Sally the finer points of cutting class and inevitably falls for her. At the same time, George, who likes to draw, meets a painter named Dustin (Michael Angarano), a graduate from George's high school whose bohemian artist lifestyle in Brooklyn gives George a tantalizing glimpse of a potential future that could take him away from his home life, where he's grown apart from his mom (Rita Wilson) and bristles at his stepdad (Sam Robards). There's also the looming threat of George not graduating, when his principal (Blair Underwood) tells George that he'll be held back unless he finishes a year's worth of homework in three weeks.
So the stakes in The Art of Getting By aren't particularly high. The dialogue sometimes sounds like adult's words coming out of kids' mouths, and while the indie rock soundtrack has some good songs, there's so much music that the film often seems afraid of quiet moments. But what makes this movie work better than it should is Highmore, who brings a quiet sensitivity to a role that could easily come off as annoying, which is greatly helped by the fact that Highmore was finishing high school when the movie was shot and actually looks like a mopey teenager. Roberts also does a good job, displaying a maturity that contrasts well with George's adolescent awkwardness while showing the subtle effects of a childhood largely spent raising herself. Roberts has an accessible attractiveness that would make even a geeky kid feel like he had a chance with her, and the film uses its New York setting well, with an appealing, naturalistic, non-cliché look.
While George's journey to excise his existential angst might sound self-indulgent, that's kind of the point. After all, we're all self-obsessed as children, but when we reach adolescence, we're able to give that self-obsession meaning, when it's usually just selfishness masked by a half-baked philosophy. So George's story can really be seen as a teenager learning not to be selfish, which is a pretty cool idea. He has to learn that the people who are hassling him -- like his mom, principal and teachers -- are actually trying to help him, and that the inevitability of death doesn't mean that his life doesn't affect those around him. The title The Art of Getting By could refer to George's ability to skate through high school without doing any work, or maybe it's about what kids eventually need to learn on the way to adulthood -- that to get by in life, you need to get over yourself.
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