A film which opens with dialogue explaining how everything is pointless and meaningless had better not change its tune later on without sufficient reasoning. The Art of Getting By is a film without such a reason, in large part because of a lack of depth to its lead character. He changes his tune without an explanation, and while you can speculate and postulate, the fact remains that the film doesn’t offer sufficient reasoning. Spoiler alert: Pessimism and misanthropy don’t conquer all.
The teenager ascribing to these philosophies is young George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore), who explains that 120 million people die every year and that there’s no point to anything because out of every human to ever live, the only certainty is death. This idea extends to his homework, which he’s since ceased doing. This causes him to be put on probation, and causes tension at home, which most teenagers will tell you is already tense enough. At this point in the film, he’s consistent in his outlook, and I respected him for that, even with the overwhelming feeling of “I used to be that teenager.” Most adults will feel that way, looking back without nostalgia at this phase in life.
He continues this attitude even after a popular girl, Sally (Emma Roberts), takes an interest in him. He has no friends, but now he does. We can tell that she has a crush on him; he has one on her, too, but either doesn’t know how or doesn’t want to act on that feeling. So, they become friends, and hang out, and all that good things. She tries to expand his horizons, he grumpily proclaims how little meaning it all has.
She sticks with him, because love triumphs over logic, I suppose. A third character is introduced, this one an artist named Dustin (Michael Angarano) who sees what we see in regard to the pair. He acts as a mentor to George, who wants to maybe someday become an artist, as well as, later on, a foil. He’s a nice guy and it’s hard to root against him, especially with his positive demeanor acting in contrast to that of our lead.
The plot meanders around before an ultimatum is issued, characters have to make tough decisions, and prior conflicts finally reach the boiling point. And then there’s the outlook change, which is largely unmotivated. How one finally finds motivation to do something he’s been proclaiming is pointless for nearly an hour of screen time really needs to be explained, not guessed upon by the audience. It’s this sort of polish that keeps The Art of Getting By from being a film that’s worth watching. It approaches that level but never quite reaches it.
Of course, it all goes to teach a lesson to the main character and the audience, but without that motivation it falls flat. Why contradict yourself without reasoning, even if that contradiction is “right”? It’s not going to wake up anyone in a similar situation to its lead because it doesn’t use any logic to back up its new position. “Hey, you should totally not think life is pointless and stuff,” it says. “Why?” we ask, to which we are greeted with silence and nothing more.
The relatively unimportant problems that the characters have to face are also solved rather effortlessly, making us wonder exactly why they were built up so far. Essentially, they characters just get up and do a single thing to fix them, or, even better, they’re fixed without any direct action. Again, I have to wonder what the point is, especially if the characters don’t have to do anything to fix their problems. Even the central relationship comes to an unsatisfactory conclusion — and not because it doesn’t end the way you want it to.
It’s all predictable and kind of boring, and the 84-minute running time seems to last forever. It’s an indie film that tries its hardest to be an indie film, and that isn’t something that often ends well, especially when it’s not as quirky as those who enjoy the genre will expect. And what’s with these 18-year-old kids getting to buy alcohol at every single restaurant and bar they enter? Is that how it is in New York City? The drinking age there is still 21, isn’t it?
You can’t blame the cast. Freddie Highmore is transitioning well from a child actor to an adult. Emma Roberts is sweet and likable as the manic pixie girl, even if her character is written without reason or logic. Michael Angrano is so nice that it’s tough to see what his character does in the latter half of the film. All three of the younger actors have undeniable talent and they’ve done and will do better movies than this one. And it’s not even that The Art of Getting By is terrible; it’s just not quite good enough to recommend.
The Art of Getting By sometimes approaches a level of quality where it would be worth seeing, but it never crosses that threshold and it ultimately serves to remind us of better films involving teenagers, young love, and a view of the world that isn’t at all positive. There’s little depth to the characters, unmotivated actions, “huge” problems solved without much (or any) effort, and while the acting is overall just fine, the actors aren’t playing great characters to begin with. If you’re a huge fan of the actors or this type of film, it might be worth seeing, but for anyone else, it’s something to skip.