The Art Of Getting By Review

There’s a memorable movie sequence in the splendid marionette inspired feature Team America, where the protagonist undergoes a miraculous transformation from wooden doll to wooden doll with slightly harder pecs. All the while, an 80’s inspired song serenading the virtues of the cinematic montage plays over the top.

Presumably, this premise has been appropriated by film studies lecturers the world over, as debutant auteur Gavin Wiesen graphically illustrates in The Art of Getting By.

Set in moneyed New York, Wiesen’s film orbits a gifted but motivationally challenged outsider in his senior year at a fee paying high school. This satellite’s name is George, an aspiring artist who is only an influential figure in the doodling movement so far, as ably demonstrated on the covers of his unread textbooks.

Quietly rebellious, nihilistic and lazy, George is also full of good intentions; effortlessly carrying himself with both courtesy and eloquence. His charming disposition quickly frustrates teachers and headmaster alike, who fear George’s amiable nature will only fuel his inevitable academic disappointment.

Although shy and wrapped up in his teenage preoccupations George, strikes up a friendship with the popular and beautiful Sally, who is intrigued at his haphazard approach to schoolwork, as well as his cultivated air of mystery.

A gentle and platonic relationship emerges. This sees George taking his first tentative steps towards integration into mainstream school life as he is initiated in rather more prosaic student pursuits. In return, George sways Sally to bunk off class so he can tutor the object of his affection in the city’s many art galleries.

The Art of Getting By dances to the rhythm of a well worn cinematic and literal groove. The story of a young man who, on finding himself out of step with his peers, struggles to make sense of the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

And as in Catcher in the Rye, not a great deal actually happens in the terms of plot development. But then not an awful lot happens to George.

Scenes are regularly punctuated with long, mood-lit tracking shots and the cast heroically rise to the challenge; appearing to immerse themselves in existential thought whilst smouldering into the lens.

Assisted by a generally sound script which manages to navigate its way around 80’s John Hughes’ teen angst cliché, The Art Of Getting By is all the more believable for being played by actors of a similar age to their characters.

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts, who play George and Sally, both wear an innate coolness, insulating their internal struggles and desires from the outside world.

Naturally, the success of any film which draws its main inspiration from the romantic comedy genre sits squarely on the shoulders of its two leads. Highmore, in particular, delivers a sweet and charismatic performance, carrying the film on his narrow shoulders.

Unlike most comparable stories, his disaffected protagonist enjoys a positive relationship with the majority of his adult social circle. This is particularly apparent when George is confronted en masse by his teachers, who see no alternative other than to shock him into action.

Alicia Silverstone stands out in a supporting role as his maternal English Literature teacher, cannily cast considering the film in which she made her name.

The other supporting player deserving of a mention is the city of New York itself, elegantly draped as a backdrop or occasionally thrust into sharper focus through a series of aesthetic set-pieces which knit the film together.

It could have been difficult to be enthusiastic about The Art of Getting By as a film where not a great deal happens to a bunch of attractive, privileged and under-appreciating slackers. In spite of this, and its lack of narrative originality, The Art of Getting By is never less than watchable; ably assisted in no small part by strong lead performances as well as the numerous montages.

Always fade out in a montage…

Frank Gardiner

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September 2011
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