First time filmmaker misses the mark

By Drew Hunt

Making his feature-length debut, writer-director Gavin Wiesen delivers a coming-of-age tale that feels like it’s been told too many times before. Enlisting the help of young stars Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts, Wiesen’s depiction of a wayward youth is trite in design. It revels in the kind of idealization we all possessed as teens but melted away as soon as we were mature enough to realize that there are real problems in this world.

“The Art of Getting By” is the story of George (Highmore), an exceedingly bright but apathetic kid who falls for the ultra-cool Sally (Roberts). The two begin an awkward courtship that is frequently hindered by George’s consistent indifference toward himself and the world around him.

The two begin to share stories of their assorted melancholia—George’s stepdad is out of work and not paying the bills; Sally’s mother is something of a philanderer, with a new beau every night—while chewing scenery in such illustrious Manhattan hotspots as Soho and the East Village.

For a film that relies so heavily on formulaic screenplay tactics and archetypical characterization, “The Art of Getting By” is a claptrap of clichéd plot points and trivial histrionics. It longs for sentiments it doesn’t deserve or earn, yet Wiesen, who unfortunately bears the marks of a first-time director still searching for his authorial voice, refuses to back down.

Using the broadest brush possible, he paints an inauthentic portrait of an errant teen whose plight never elevates beyond the realm of paltry emotionalism. Via a fatalistic outlook, George dismisses things like homework and friendship as purposeless, given the notion that it will all be for naught once he’s dead and gone.

As George broods about his prestigious private school, accessorizing with a copy of “The Stranger” and ensuring his dark hair is elegantly swept in front of his eyes, Wiesen perpetuates the myth that existentialism is a form of fashion—or, at the very least, a momentary phase reserved for sensitive teens who happen to be big Leonard Cohen fans.

The dramatic crux of “The Art of Getting By” lies in this specious notion. Coupled with George’s pessimistic view of existence, as well as his apprehensive interactions with Sally, the end result feels like an angsty high schooler’s melodramatic sprawls, read aloud from a composition notebook.

The character of Sally—imbued with the kind of problems only possessed by over-privileged white kids from Manhattan—is a microcosmic example of the film’s banalities. As played by Roberts, she appears to have no hobbies or interests beyond drinking and flirting and mostly exists as an emotional catalyst for the spineless George. No real emotion exists beyond her function as the film’s romantic interest.

Scenes that feature Sally and George together, such as an afternoon trek to Chinatown in which George breaks down the nuances of ditching class, are largely placeholders for Wiesen to flex what he thinks is clever dialogue. As leads, Highmore and Roberts are given nothing to work with and are treated mostly like models for Wiesens’ hipster romanticism.

Not helping matters is the film’s indistinct visual style. Suffering from a case of indecisiveness, Wiesen bounces back and forth between a documentary-esque, handheld look and the lifeless feel of a studio film. A distinct lack of vision, both aesthetically and thematically, consistently plagues “The Art of Getting By.”

Wiesen’s biggest tactic seems to lie in deglamorizing the allure of big city life. The film is set in Upper Manhattan but is shot to resemble the kind of desolate cityscape you might find in Eastern Europe. Yet that doesn’t stop him from depicting scenes where teenagers can drink in bars free of hassle and spend their evenings cavorting in nightclubs. His attempt to fuse “Gossip Girl”-style with Nietzschian rumination is nothing short of a rouse.