School is hard for people who cannot get by easily without kicking anyone’s teeth in. “I’m kind of a misanthrope,” George tells Sally in their introductory conversation; breaking the ruptured sharpness of his semi-monologue only to tell her, “I fear life.” With a zippy flash of a walk and a nervous air, George takes up shelter in his depressing thoughts and gets by. His world is sent toppling when he meets Sally. Turns out, you don’t need a devastating universe of political schizophrenia to make up for an impressive show. You can do it just as well with a wafer-thin plot with the help of crackling dialogue, good actors and a silvery soundtrack that lines up adoringly with the film’s mushy setting.
Debut writer/director Gavin Wiesen lays out the film’s basic ground quickly. George (Freddie Highmore) is a teenager who won’t ever complete or even attempt his school assignments because happiness and life are illusions, so why work so hard when nothing would help him avoid his ultimate fate (death)? Been there, done that. Using perfectly paced comic squiggles while telling us about Freddie, Wiesen sets the mood of a holier-than-thou high-school atmosphere without any strain. And then he places this delightfully broken central character among that mess and makes his strong notions foggy by messing around with his head through a girl. Sally (Emma Roberts) is saved by George on the campus terrace when a teacher catches her smoking. George takes the blame for it. They turn into friends ‒ in a strictly Hollywoodish, colorfully dreamy way ‒ but it’s sautéed to fit the chunky weight of their characteristic individuality. We get what’s cooking in the oven, but we stay anyway because we can’t shake off the wholesome, saccharine aroma. The Art of Getting By is lovely in it’s own small regard because it buys intelligent sentimentalism in exchange for the element of surprise that it gives away.
Taking the rocky road of a could-be relationship with Sally, George makes friends with Sally’s group and a painter who is not ashamed of showing up for a college lecture hungover. Dustin (Michael Angarano) tells George to open up more of his reserves when he sees George’s marvelously abstract doodles in his notebook. Freddie Highmore, the Peter Pan kid from Finding Neverland, has come a long way to this nuanced portrayal of the stereotypical teen-in-trouble. His George is not helpless or even pitiable: there is a sultry charm in his shrewd pessimism, a cool appeal in his careless treads. The plot seems to be adrift in its own unsure energy at times (one confrontational moment between Sally and Dustin in a bar is tonally jarring), but the actors play their parts with conviction and save the film from drowning in awkward mediocrity.
Emma Roberts jumps into the skin of her character and follows the prompting placards behind the camera that might have been saying ‘Look cute, recite your lines, run fingers through hair’. But that’s being unfair. She is perfect for the part of Sally and carries her splashy cheerfulness while simultaneously easing into George’s life. At one point you can see why he’s attracted to her; at another, you want smash the living daylights out of her. His teachers and the principal of his school fill in the crucial plot turns ‒ George may not graduate school after all. Then there is his stepfather who lies about getting evicted and takes the painful road to realize that George is capable of fracturing his collarbone. Brittle realities of being a love-lorn teenager are all there, and Highmore puts his emotions on the line, nailing the vulnerabilities in a very approachable scene where he listens to the same song over and over again.
It’s not exactly When Harry Met Sally. When George Met Sally, then. Decent Sunday afternoon watch.