George (Freddie Highmore) reads Camus. Of course he does. He’s 18 years old and miserable. He’s just realized, he tells a teacher (Ann Dowd) who wonders why he hasn’t done his trig exercise, “I’m going to die one day.” The camera looks up at her as if from George’s position at his classroom desk. “I want you to go to the principal’s office,” she sighs, like she’s heard this story before, “And find meaning in your homework.”
Everyone has heard this story before. And that’s the trouble with The Art of Getting By (also known, in its previously R-rated version, as Homework). George doesn’t know this, being a teenager with an extremely limited worldview, beginning in his mother’s apartment on the Upper West Side and ending in his prep school, where he runs afoul of all his teachers, who believe he’s squandering his great potential. Or so says the principal, Bill (Blair Underwood). “I know you’re capable,” says Bill from across his wood desk, cautioning George that he only has a few months left in his senior year, Bill warns, and if he doesn’t buckle down, he won’t get into a good college.
That’s probably true. But it doesn’t quite explain how Bill finds the time to counsel George so often and so aggressively: following the meeting in his office, he pops up on a stairwell, coffee cup in hand, to note not only that George has “found some new friends,” but also that he should “be careful,” because these wealthier kids have a different way of getting by than he does. These wealthier kids include Sally (Emma Roberts), the object of George’s affection. She’s willing to take him on as something like a project, and so introduces him to her too flirtatious mother (Elizabeth Reaser) (“She’s angrier than a pit bull when she wakes up,” mom says of Sally, leading you to wonder, who talks like that?), as well as her neatly diverse best friends, Will (Marcus Carl Franklin) and Zoey (Sasha Spielberg).
Somehow, Sally misses that George is developing a gargantuan crush on her, and he can’t articulate it (not living up to his potential and all). Herein lies the film’s tepid, too easily resolved tension.
As you wait for Sally and George to come together, they confront a series of non-obstacles. First, George must come to terms with his artistic inclinations, indicated by his incessant sketching all over his textbooks. Will is especially impressed—“Dude, what are you always drawing?”—and solicits a design for a Big Party Invite, where George will have a Big Moment. The sketches also impress George’s art teacher, Harris (Jarlath Conroy), who offers this inchoate child only the most hackneyed instruction: “Start digging in,” he exhorts, “and figure out what you want to say and say it.” And what if he has nothing to say, the boy asks. No excuse, insists Harris: “Find something.”
He finds nothing in English class, despite the fact that his teacher suggests he has unusual insight into The Mayor of Casterbridge. It may be ironic, but it’s definitely disheartening that this teacher, so visibly frustrated and so weary, is played by Alicia Silverstone, star of one of the best high school movies ever. You can certainly understand her irritation here, as George plays at being both smart and dumb, showing off for Sally but also self-sabotaging as hard as he can. The teacher’s point-of-view camera showcases the limits of his performance, his slouching in a high-school desk, his tweed trench coat, and his effort not to look directly at anyone. If only he could know Cher Horowitz, you begin to fantasize, he’d be saved, like everyone else in her lustrous orbit.
But no. He’s stuck with Sally, as needy and damaged as he is, as well as his mother Vivian (Rita Wilson), clueless in her own painful way, and his stepfather Jack (Sam Robards), a victim of the recession made nefarious in obvious and strangely uninvolving ways. In search of a dad, George turns to Dustin (Michael Angarano), a former student of Harris, now making money selling his art. While Dustin, at least, seems at least halfway aware that he’s scamming, that he’s lucked out for no clear reason, he finds in George an eager acolyte. He invites George to visit his Brooklyn studio—in the boy’s narrow view, a universe away from his own precious existence—and then to the Whitney, so they can discuss art—how it expresses “something.” George, poor boy, believes Dustin absolutely, and Dustin has an inkling of his effect, but that doesn’t stop him from abusing his mentee’s trust, essentially because he can.
Again and again in The Art of Getting By, art stands in for “something.” It’s meaningful, it’s admirable, and it’s profitable. It’s also a way for George to “say it.” The result of all his searching and digging in is as disappointing as it could be. As the camera puts off showing you his final art project, a painting he’s worked on for a couple of days, anyway, you’re hoping against hope that you won’t actually see it. But you do.