When a teacher at his Manhattan private school asks George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) why he hasn’t done his homework, his response, something about how he couldn’t shake a feeling of mortality and a suspicion that it’s all meaningless anyway, would make the elementary-school version of Alvy Singer from early scenes of Annie Hall nod in recognition. The adult Alvy Singer, the one played by Woody Allen, might not disagree either, but he might be savvy enough to realize that this blather about futility and the inevitability of death constitutes a near-wholesale theft of his shtick — except, of course, for the key component of actually being funny.
That’s how it goes with The Art of Getting By, a Fox Searchlight indie now on DVD. In addition to the Woody echoes, the box copy boasts, with more than a hint of desperation, that it’s “from the studio that brought you Juno and (500) Days of Summer.” While this phrasing correctly indicates just how little this movie has to do with either of those hits (while you’re at it, it’s also from the same studio as Black Swan, Shame, and The Namesake, because studios, you know, release a bunch of movies), the Searchlight brand does usually shine on youth-oriented movies a bit more inventive than this one.
This first feature from writer-director Gavin Wiesen looks, on the surface, like the kind of sensitive, funny-sad indie that garners an appreciative cult audience. But to say that it’s no Rushmore seems beside the point; it’s no Tadpole, either.
George, like many more interesting teenage characters before him, is in danger of failing out of school due to a lack of effort that most of his teachers claim to be able to see through, insisting that he has so much potential. This probably has to do with his ability, transparent in its screenwritten effort, to occasionally summon a perfectly timed and phrased insight about, say, a book for English class he appears not to have read. When he impulsively covers for Sally (Emma Roberts), a fellow student cutting class, she takes a shine to him, as does Dustin (Michael Angarano), a graduate who returns to talk up his burgeoning art career.
Did I forget to mention that George is also a gifted artist? Kind of an easy out for someone who dithers about his incurable fatalism, isn’t it? The movie pays an awful lot of lip service to George’s ennui at the beginning, only to turn more or less into a wan love triangle between George, Sally, and Dustin, the connective tissue being George’s fatalistic passivity.
The relationship stuff at least hints at a sweet, villain-free teenage romance. Roberts has an easy charisma – I guess there’s a reason she’s become the go-to object of affection for offbeat teenagers in movies like this and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. There’s just something about her face that calls to sensitive indie writer-directors: “Wouldn’t it be cool if I liked a nerd like you for no particular reason?” Highmore, playing a less likable character, fares less well given his strong work as a Depp-adjacent child actor in Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
But little of the movie’s inertia can be blamed on the actors when their characters are summarized, not dramatized – and the screenplay forces them to do most of the summarizing themselves. George speaks with an affected stiffness that’s supposed to show how aloof, quirky, and neurotic he is, but strip away his affectations and he talks like everyone else in the movie: with an off-putting mixture of exposition, clumsy self-description, and general tin-eared awkwardness. The filmmaking is similarly awkward: time passes– the movie takes place over the course of a schoolyear — yet nothing seems to happen offscreen.
The movie attributes George’s block as an artist to his lack of having anything to say; it’s almost too easy to turn around and say the same for writer-director Wiesen, but his DVD commentary track makes it impossible to ignore. In between long silences, Wiesen drones on about the logistics of shooting: how quickly scenes were shot and where, when they happened in the shooting schedule, which ones required extensive ADR work later (whatever you think of Roberts and Highmore’s performances here, know that their ADR skills are apparently unimpeachable). During one of the brief moments where he addresses the movie as more than an assemblage of scenes that were shot at various locations and light levels, he refers to a laughable montage where George tries to complete all of his blown-off work as addressing “actual mechanics” of the plot — the “shoe leather” holding this non-story together.
Almost assaultive degree of banality nonwithstanding, The Art of Getting By is a harmless movie, easier to forget than to truly hate. But in a year when Searchlight buried Margaret, a smarter, stranger, more perceptive movie about a bright teenager attending private school in New York City, on just a handful of screens (Getting By was at least dumped out onto several hundred), the mildest of its mild charms aren’t enough. On second thought, maybe that DVD ad copy isn’t so irrelevant. The studio that brought you Juno, (500) Days of Summer, Margaret, Whip It, The Descendants, and at least one actual Woody Allen movie, among others, should know better than this.