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Movie Review

The Art of Getting By

Trying to get by in Gossip Girl land

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 17, 2011

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‘The Art of Getting By,’’ a drama about a Manhattan high school misfit, is the first feature written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, and I’m betting it’s pretty personal. Ironically, that’s probably why it feels so generic, as if made from the common denominator of a million teenage journals. To paraphrase Tolstoy (or, really, to mash up Tolstoy with J.D. Salinger), all unhappy adolescences are alike — or at least they look that way when condensed into 90-odd minutes of privileged self-pity.

The movie, which premiered in a longer, R-rated version titled “Homework’’ at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is most notable for showcasing the first major grown-up performance by Freddie Highmore, the British child actor (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’’ “Finding Neverland’’) who apparently made the same pact with the devil that Dakota Fanning did. Now lanky and pale, Highmore plays the sorrows of young George Zinavoy with a passable American accent and a defiant absence of standard movie-star charisma. I mean that as a plus, mostly, and it’s about the only plus “The Art of Getting By’’ has to offer.

George’s rebellion is pure in its passive-aggressiveness: He refuses to do schoolwork and he fills up his class time with daydreams and gifted doodles. Why bother with trigonometry when, as George sees it, “we live alone and we die alone and everything else is an illusion’’? The moviegoer searches in vain for the tone of sympathetic mockery that would make such a line bearable.

There’s a girl; there always is. Sally Howe (Emma Roberts) is the queen bee of Morgan Academy, with chic pals, an unknown dad, and a sozzled best friend of a mother (Elizabeth Reaser). Why she takes the anti-social George under her wing is anyone’s guess, unless it’s for the mind games. “The Art of Getting By’’ would be a lot more convincing if Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) had a mean bone in her body, but Sally is a soft-focus vixen, and both George and we deserve stronger stuff. The Gossip Girls would tear her to pieces.

The film follows George’s life as it goes south over the course of senior year. His teachers fret (one is played by Alicia Silverstone, no longer clueless), the hip principal (Blair Underwood) issues ultimatums, Sally goes round the maypole with a slightly older artist (sharply played by Michael Angarano), George’s mother (Rita Wilson) wrings her hands in Upper West Side despair, and her second husband (Sam Robards) plunges further into his own crisis. This last is the most dynamic subplot of “The Art of Getting By,’’ with our hero secretly following his stepfather through the New York streets as if wondering what someone with real problems looks like.

I sound annoyed with this movie; I am. If the director had brought any toughness of perspective — or at least the self-lacerating humor of 2002’s “Igby Goes Down,’’ still the reigning champ of screwed-up-Manhattan-prepster films — we might be able to digest George’s follies without cringing. But this is the kind of story where everything works out neatly, much too nicely, and with such gentle life lessons that your teeth start to hurt. Someone gets off a plane who in real life would never have got off the plane. Someone else pays for academic crimes with a brisk montage of hard work and hugs all around. Given the choice between dying alone and illusion, the director chooses the latter. Completely understandable, but does the illusion have to be so boring?

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE ART OF GETTING BY Written and directed by: Gavin Wiesen

Starring: Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Rita Wilson, Michael Angarano, Blair Underwood

At: Waltham Embassy, Harvard Square, suburbs

Running time: 94 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (sexual content, language, teen drinking, partying, smoking, whining)

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