Art Does Just Enough to Get By
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 20 Jun
DVD Release Date: November 29, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: June 17, 2011 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including sexual content, language, teen drinking and partying)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 83 min.
Director: Gavin Wiesen
Actors: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Sasha Spielberg, Marcus Carl Franklin, Blair Underwood, Rita Wilson, Sam Robards, Alicia Silverstone
George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore, Astro Boy) has a problem. Obsessed with thoughts of mortality and the pointlessness of existence, he gives voice to “a real problem with motivating” himself.
A teacher, recognizing that George is listless and on the cusp of failing his class, tells him to find something to say, and say it. The same question could have been put to the filmmakers. What did they have to say with The Art of Getting By? Why did they make this movie?
That may sound dismissive, but it’s not intended to be. The Art of Getting By has its strengths, but it’s hard to figure out what motivated people to make a character-driven drama about George, whose appeal and charm are negligible. Were he played as a rascal or a conniver, that would be a different matter, but the filmmakers have made George into a privileged whiner. They want us to take George’s side, to empathize with him, but they never close the sale. It’s George’s love interest, Sally (Emma Roberts, It’s Kind of a Funny Story), who takes up the slack, giving a charge to a film that often threatens to peter out but sparks to life just enough to hold our interest and carry us to the end credits.
We meet George as he wonders about the “inevitability of dying alone.” Nothing will help avoid his fate, he says. So mired is George in this existential crisis that he can’t be bothered to do his homework. His mother frets that if he doesn’t do well in school, he won’t be able to get a job, but her concern only feeds George’s apathy.
Enter Sally, a fellow student who breaks the school rules (she’s nearly caught smoking until George takes the fall for her). They become fast friends, providing George with the possibility of a relationship that might life new purpose—and just in time. George’s prospects at school have grown dire: He’s facing suspension if his performance doesn’t improve quickly. Too bad he’d rather hang out with Sally, party and continue to blow off his studies rather than get serious.
Instead, the two of them cut school, see matinee movies and learn that George isn’t the only one in his family struggling with daily responsibilities. His stepfather, Jack, is spending his days in restaurants and at city bus stops, having been evicted from his office space. That gives George a secret he can use as leverage whenever his mom (Rita Wilson, It’s Complicated) and Jack (Sam Robards, Che: Part One) bring up George’s problems, but the story never makes Jack’s situation seem essential to George’s problems. It does, however, provide a springboard to a late-in-film revelation about George’s mom and her marital struggles—also superfluous, although Wilson’s big scene of emotional unburdening to her son is affecting.
George’s other notable personal relationship is with Dustin (Michael Angarano, Gentlemen Broncos), an artist and recent graduate of George’s school who gives him advice about how to pursue Sally and who, predictably, becomes Sally’s shoulder to cry on when George doesn’t respond to her strong come-ons. Sally’s pursuit of George and her explicit propositioning of him are interesting scenes in that they show the female character aggressively pursuing a reluctant male character (the situation is usually reversed), and him hinting that he’s a virgin before spurning her suggestion that they sleep together. He doesn’t refuse her advances out of moral conviction—he’s simply confused, uncertain and scared—but the fact that the two characters don’t jump into bed together gives the film an innocence among the sadness and the cynicism of most of its characters.
Fatherlessness is another buried theme in The Art of Getting By. Both George and Sally have grown up without their biological fathers. Each has accepted that, but as they discuss their backgrounds, there’s a strained undertone of abandonment to their talk. However, like much else in the film—including the characters of Zoe and Will, friends of George’s who barely have any screen time after the story introduces them—it’s underdeveloped.
With so many undercooked themes and characters, The Art of Getting By has no right to work, but the film pays off with an ending that plays much more like a mainstream romantic comedy than the dour independent film Art wants to be. Indie-film audiences will feel betrayed by the feel-good ending, while mainstream audiences will be put off by George’s sense of emptiness and entitlement, raising again the question of to whom, exactly, this film is targeted.
Maybe students looking for a more complex theater experience than the standard multiplex fare? The movie does have enough of an upbeat ending that those viewers, like George, will be able to shake off the character’s sense of despair and angst and leave them wondering how, against the odds, the film manages to get by.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; the “f” word”; “s-it”; a woman says she has “a lot of slutty friends” George might like; “circle jerk”; “douchebag”; “bats-it”; “sadistic little hussy.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Several scenes of smoking and drinking; verbal speculation about a “drug buy from a skanky hooker”; Dustin says he was hung over when he agreed to speak to a group of students.
- Sex/Nudity: Sally’s mom comes on to George; Sally pulls out a trundle bed for George to sleep on; he watches her undress from behind, and we see a bra strap but no nudity; they don’t sleep together, but Sally notices that George has an erection under his sheets; George is told to throw Sally against the wall and kiss her; Sally asks George if he’s ever had sex, he suggests the answer is “no,” and then she asks if he’ll have sex with her; kissing; Sally tells George he’ll have to sleep with a lot of girls to get her out of his system.
- Violence/Crime: Jack assaults George, who rights him off with an elbow to the chest.
Religion/Morals: George doesn’t see the point of life and speaks of “fate”; an artist describes a painting as “heaven to me.”
Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at email@example.com.