When it played Sundance earlier this year, this film went by the name Homework. I am not sure if the name change was the only change or if it underwent any other edit in the wake of its distribution deal, but I can say that the new title is certainly an improvement. Don’t you think The Art of Getting By sounds better? The original name makes it sound like some lame MTV Films production, whereas the final title makes it appear more like the quirky indie it is. It also sounds like it would make a great double feature with It’s Kind of a Funny Story (which, coincidentally, also co-stars Emma Roberts). Both are populated with quirky characters and a central character trying to deal with the world around him in angsty, indie fashion.
Freddie Highmore stars as George. George has issues; he spends a lot of time grappling with mortality and the pointlessness of everything. It makes me feel a little conflicted. On one hand there was something strangely affecting about the youth’s fatalistic angst expressed through art without meaning (he is always drawing something, but never has anything to say); however, the enjoyment was counterbalanced by the feeling that this was little more than indie shorthand, collecting many of the tropes, quirks, and affectations of other teen-centric indies while not really offering anything of itself.
Do you know what I mean? It is as if the writer/director took all of the indie elements that have influenced him over the years and after a slight period of fermentation have spat them back out into one project. It approaches the border of being too much. Fortunately, it never flows over the dam, leaving the movie to play on its own terms, not exactly a realistic journey, but one that has interesting moments to make you ponder your own reality.
The Art of Getting By focuses on George (Highmore), a too-smart-for-school senior suffering from fatalistic depression brought on by the realization that everyone dies, and that life has little point, considering the inevitability of death (such happy thoughts). On top of that, his mother and stepfather are having money issues, and he is in danger of not graduating because he stopped doing his school work in the face of his soul-crushing mortality. Pretty much all he is able to do is draw and sketch in whatever he happens to have at hand, but nothing is good enough for him, no heart, no soul. Nothing seems to carry any meaning for him, so why bother?
The center of the story is George and Sally (Roberts). He is the loner, she is the pretty rebel (she, gasp, smokes!). They become awkward friends, it is a friendship that seems to carry the inevitable with it, although they move in fits and spurts and there is the third wheel of Dustin (Michael Angarano), a slacker mentor artist to George, who interferes with the proceedings. Yes, they would seem destined to become a couple. The friendship appears to bring the first realistic weight of meaning to his life and it is toppling him, sending him further down the angsty rabbit hole.
It moves along in expected fashion, being sure to hit on all the things that identify it as a quirky indie. It is a shorthand collection of all things indie, yet it still manages to work. Is it original? Not particularly. The cast is good. I think Highmore does a good job of embodying the stereotypical smart/loner type while the unlikely relationship is believable with Roberts able to pull of that certain something that makes us believe her and still be surprised at some of the things she does.
This is the first feature for writer/director Gavin Weisen and he does a decent job of pulling everything together. What I think he needs to do next time is, much like George, find his artistic voice and something to say rather than show us what he thinks we want to see. I like the indie hipster affectations, despite my general distaste for the hipster, but I do like to see something different blended in. It is like Weisen knew how to make all the pieces together and have it make sense, but wasn’t sure what to do then. We are left with interesting ideas steeped in a highly unbelievable reality.
I like the film despite its lack of a unique voice. It is primarily due to the performances of Highmore and Roberts, as well as some supporting work from Michael Angarano, Blair Underwood as the school principal, and Jarlath Conroy as George’s stepfather, than what the story had to offer itself. Also, there is the fact that a young friend of mine is an artist seeking his voice, not unlike the main character, although I feel it safe to say he is going about it in a much less fatalistic fashion.
Audio/Video. The film is presented in a 2.4:1 aspect ratio. It is a decent looking disk that has a good level of detail . The problem is that it feels terribly flat and at times a little to the soft side. Where I have seen films with flat color palettes pop with great detail differentiating on screen items, this one seems to treat everything the same. Sure the evidence of detail exists, but the characters often do not seem to be any different than the trees or furniture. There is a lack of depth that I do not recall from the theater, but that may just be my memory. It is a fine transfer, just unspectacular.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS MasterHD track. It is a solid track with great dialogue clarity, but like the video it does not establish itself as being anything special. There is nice use of surrounds for ambiance whenever they are outside on the streets of New York City. Aside from ambiance, the surrounds don’t a lot of activity and there is not much bass to play with. That is all right as this is very much a dialogue driven film.
Extras. This release has a few things included on it, they are largely not worth your time, basic superficial things that reuse the same clips.
- Audio Commentary with Director Gavin Wiesen. The track has some good information, but is generally to the dry side.
- “New York Slice of Life.” A brief look at shooting in NY, accompanied by some film clips.
- “On Young Love.” A glance at the theme of first love with some clips.
- “Fox Movie Channel Presents – In Character with Freddie Highmore.” Another short featurette with some interview footage with Freddie Highmore with still more clips.
- “HBO First Look – The Making of The Art of Getting By.” This feels like a combination of the above three and offers little insight.
- Theatrical Trailer.
Bottomline. This is a decent film I think many will enjoy. It was sort of fun watching teenage George talk like he is an old man. It felt a touch rehearsed, but that is all right. I say give it a watch, but there shouldn’t be any need to watch it again.