Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 30, 2011 2:48 pm 
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Peter Pan in prep school

In writer-director Gavin Wiesen's first feature, George (Freddie Highmore) is a senior in a Manhattan prep school who's above it all. He's terribly smart and a talented artist who draws all the time, but doesn't do his school work. He's gotten away with it so far. But this year he finds he's no longer the "Teflon slacker" he has claimed to be. His teachers and the headmaster tell him he may not graduate. And meanwhile his aloofness catches up with him in a more personal way when he's befriended by the beautiful Sally (Emma Roberts), a popular but complicated fellow student who sees him as a soul mate rather than a boyfriend. Eventually while home life is collapsing and his future is in doubt, George has to admit he's in love with Sally and doesn't want her to run off with an older artist he has introduced her to.

The gifted Freddie Highmore is the English actor who played the inspiration for Peter Pan in Finding Wonderland. He also played Helena Bonham Carter's son in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and other fantasy roles. Prep school is a more down to earth gig. Freddie is tall and reedy now, though still baby-faced. He's adept at delivering George's sophisticated lines. George is a young man with a secret smile who wears an overcoat even indoors and plays it cool. George is frustrating to those around him. He's also annoying to some viewers, including many of the reviewers, who seem to have found The Art of Getting By to be insufferable.

I view this reaction with some skepticism: Holden Caulfield is insufferable too. Some adults may not have it in them to sympathize with a lonely and fatalistic teen who pretends not to have feelings. I wouldn't buy the idea that Terri, in the film by the same name, is more real because he is big and overweight. One may feel like an albatross but not actually be one: this is a stage many teenagers must go through and George is simply a more visible version. I liked that George has fans -- that in class his brief replies to teachers draw an appreciative laugh, and that a school hipster Sally introduces him to (Marcus Carl Franklin) is eager to use one of his drawings for a party invitation. The students know he's smart and artistic and a maverick. This isn't Peter Pan, but he's living some kids' fantasies. There's no reason to come down hard on The Art of Getting By. Gavin Wiesen knows his subject and plays his cards right. This is a promising first film, full of sensitivity and nice dialogue, even though it ought not to have defined its protagonist's world-weariness so emphatically in its opening voiceover. I can agree with A.O. Scott of the New York Times: "Yet there is also much in The Art of Getting By that is worth praising, and if you can grade on a curve — setting the standard at The Wackness rather than The Squid and the Whale — you may find yourself touched, tickled and occasionally surprised. "

That is partly true. The Art of Getting By lacks Squid's wit and ensemble work but avoids the cute rituals of The Wackness. People are fooled by the threat of cliché -- Wiesen never succumbs to it. Getting By's adults are quite vivid, particularly George's salty art teacher, Harris (Jarlath Conroy), his sophisticated but harried mom, Vivian (Rita Wilson) and his evasive stepfather (Sam Robards). This film brings its specific New York world to life. But it is primarily about an introspective young man whose protective facade leads to self-sabotage when it bars him from admitting his feelings to the girl he loves. A key figure is Dustin (Michael Angarano), the somewhat older graduate of the school who's an artist and whom George introduces to Sally to his regret. Angarano is well cast, unlike the conventional girlfriend's older boyfriend because he's not the usual dashingly handsome rival type but seems immature and confused too.

George reads Camus in the lunchroom and has interesting theories about the English class texts even without doing the assignments, but he has far more going on in his head than in his deliberately lonely life. Like many real life East Coast preppies whose families may be disintegrating while the competition to be brilliant and successful overwhelms them, George is more sophisticated than he knows how to deal with -- the same problem faced by Noah Baumbach's foundering college graduates in his debut feature, Kicking and Screaming. Despite the assumptions of some viewers, George is not a generic coming-of-age slacker boy but someone quite specific. Even Freddie Highmore's smiles make him pleasantly different from the brooding youth stereotype. One will look in vain for the wit of Whit Stillman or Burr Steers -- or Noah Baumbach -- but that isn't what Wiesen's trying for. The best part of George is that he's mysterious -- probably even to himself.

US release from June 17, 2011/ Released in the UK Sept. 2, 2011. This review published for the UK on that date on

Wikipedia provides an unusually detailed blow-by-blow description of the action of this film in an article. Young Highmore speaks amazingly fluent and confident French, as this YouTube interview shows. Kevin Kline, eat your heart out!

©Chris Knipp. 2011

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