Written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, The Art of Getting By stars Freddie Highmore as George, a complicated teenage boy struggling to make his way through his final year at high school. We meet George at a turning point in his high school career. He opens the film with a voice-over in which he announces that his awareness of the fact he will one day die is holding him back from living his life. He is told by his headmaster that unless he changes his attitude, does his homework and focuses in class, he will not graduate. Simultaneously, he is unexpectedly befriended by one of the most popular girls in his class, Sally (Emma Roberts).
It takes a little while to get into this film. Initially George’s slightly stilted dialogue and his supposed preoccupation with mortality is strange, and makes it a little difficult to believe the connection he starts to form with Sally. However, as the film progresses, we see more of his home life, experience more of the ups and downs of his mother’s marriage to his step father, and see his vulnerability (which Highmore brings out fantastically). We suspect that George’s ‘weirdness’ and inability to fit in are simply a cover for a young boy who is terrified that he will never find his place in the world – so much so, that it is simply easier to avoid friendships, relationships and even school work, as to fail through choice seems preferable to failing because he simply isn’t good enough. This, while it has been explored before, is such an important theme to explore in film.
Teenage years/early twenties are an incredibly difficult time – finding yourself and what you want to do with your life, forming relationships and succeeding academically come so much more easily to some than to others and, with George, we witness the struggle he faces in accepting that in growing up, and reaching the end of his school days, he has some important decisions to make. He almost loses Sally, who he falls in love with, because he is too afraid to do anything about it. His existence is built on finding excuses as to why he can’t complete his work or why he can’t make a move on Sally, to the point where he has three weeks in which to do an entire years’ worth of school work in order to graduate. It is only when he realises how desperately his mother wants him to do well and make something of himself, that he finds the determination to try.
The film is only an hour and twenty minutes long and you wonder if it couldn’t have maybe benefited from an extra ten minutes early on – as mentioned before, his friendship with Sally (while Emma Roberts plays the character really well) comes about very quickly. They go from apparently having been in class together for years without speaking, to him going round to her house for a drink straight from school simply because he takes the blame when she is almost caught smoking on school grounds. It seems that the two are kindred spirits, and Sally begins to understand George in a way that no-one else at school has ever taken the time to. A little more time could have possibly been taken seeing them in their school environment separately, to get a feel for the life George was living before Sally took him under her wing.
Another highlight of the film is Michael Angarano’s character, Dustin, an artist and ex-student from the same school who finds himself caught up in the relationship between George and Sally. He becomes sort of mentor to George, encouraging him in his art and his attraction to Sally, despite being interested in Sally himself. We can almost imagine that Dustin was exactly like George a few years before.
The Art of Getting By is an unusual teen film, but explores what are very important themes for the age group of its characters. It is observant, if a little overly analytical, in its script, and is definitely worth watching, especially if you are a fan of films of this sort of teen genre – something like Running with Scissors is of a fairly similar tone.