Difficult, Fun, Illuminating, Lazy Adolescence: The Art of Getting By, a film of New York youth starring Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts, directed by Gavin Wiesen

By Daniel Garrett

The Art of Getting By
Directed by Gavin Wiesen
Starring Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Rita Wilson,
Elizabeth Reaser, Michael Angarano, Blair Underwood
Fox, 2011

Click your heels three times, a hundred times, a thousand times: There is no place like New York. Gavin Wiesen’s film The Art of Getting By is a New York story that captures how intimate and private New York can be, with the little restaurants and accidental friendships and independent and foreign films and side streets and unique career opportunities and secluded park hills and observations of strangers and late night clubs and troubled family lives. The tall buildings and bright lights give way to a city that each person creates for himself, herself; and in the film the high school senior George, who likes skipping class for a jaunt in the city, has been neglecting too much of his work and is warned by the principal that he may not graduate high school or go to college. George is a very bright child rather than a young man, and he is very aware of the idea that we are born alone and die alone—and he uses that idea as an excuse not to take on responsibility: he does not have enough experience to know the cost of ideas, or of action or inaction.

George is at an age of questions. Who is he, and what does he want? George reads a lot and has favorite painters. Is that distant world of art, a world of ideals, too far from his own? Is that world clear and close enough to fascinate, but too distant and strange to inspire? Who is responsible for helping a young person to connect an inherited culture—art, literature, philosophy—with his own world, and to know that he can have a significant place in the world, and that his life and choices matter? Is that something he must do alone, or do parents and teachers have a role to play? Are peers the same age helpful when one is trying to gain mastery?

Gavin Wiesen’s film The Art of Getting By is an interesting portrait of a unique young man’s coming of age in a cosmopolitan city; a film with a good subject, script, and cast and crew, illustrating the attractions, confusions, and dangers of a smart boy’s life. After a teacher, Mrs. Grimes (Ann Dowd), asks George (Freddie Highmore) why he did not do his trigonometry homework, George says life and the homework seem meaningless, and he is sent to the principal’s office. The principal is William Martinson, played by Blair Underwood as an affectionate, intelligent and intuitive man, a professional but casually good manager. The principal and the teachers respect George because he is sensitive, imaginative, and articulate—he has ideas and makes sense; he has potential—though they do not know why George lacks commitment or purpose. It is possible that they respect him too much, extending a camaraderie and faith he has not earned. George has skill as an artist, and is able to answer certain questions in class: he impresses his literature teacher Ms. Herman (Alicia Silverstone) by citing a bee’s eye view of town as a romantic strategy in Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. However, George, failing to complete any assignments, is put on academic probation, and his smart, liberal, wary mother Vivian (Rita Wilson) is concerned but trusts him too, especially after he promises to do his work: George, who calls his parents and most adults by their first names, is a child of privilege and permission, allowed to be himself before he knows fully what that is. Of course, George’s mother has her own trouble, with a husband Jack who has lost his business and bills that are difficult to pay. The lights are turned off in their apartment for a time. George’s life changes after he befriends a girl, Sally: when a teacher smells cigarette smoke, George says that it was he, not Sally, smoking. Sally (Emma Roberts) appreciates that lie, and when they talk Sally finds that she likes George: his honesty, intelligence, and sadness are easily discerned, making him more real than her other fun-loving associates. Sally’s sensuality makes her seem older than she is. It is interesting to wonder what Sally represents. Is it love or merely sex? Is it experience or corruption? Does sex lead to knowledge, and to maturity, or to the deterioration of character? Sally’s mother, Charlotte, is a bit of a wild woman too. Yet, Sally’s mother warns Sally not to play with the heart of a nice boy, but Sally denies that is what she is doing. George begins to meet Sally’s friends, and is invited to draw an invitation for a party: they accept him and recognize his talent, without really understanding him.

As well, George meets one of the school’s graduates, an artist who has had his first exhibition, Dustin, a quirky young man, who comes to speak with George’s class, and show his intense, dark, murky work. Dustin (Michael Angarano) invites George to his Brooklyn studio, and George takes Sally—and there is some attraction between George’s two friends. Dustin advises George to express his affection for Sally and to paint what genuinely interests him, good advice George ignores. Dustin, subsequently, reiterates the advice about Sally when he and George visit the Whitney museum, where Dustin says one painting looks like money. Dustin notices George’s tendency to idealize things. George may be in that stage of youth and procrastination when one waits for the perfect idea, the perfect mood, and the perfect situation. Dustin admits his own lack of assurance, and he is probably not the person to explain to George that art not only recognizes and expresses emotion, and helps a young person to interpret himself, but, rather than confirm his isolation, can help him to become reconciled to the world. George, at home, looks at a small book of paintings, and dreams of having his own art exhibit, at which, suddenly, all his canvases turn blank, white. George may be too self-aware: he seems inclined to rate his ideas before they are expressed, practiced. George says he is allergic to his own hormones; and when one of Sally’s friends, Zoe, offers to introduce him to some of her slutty friends, he is not interested. The ordinary life of youthful experimentation is beyond George—he is both too innocent and too sophisticated for it. He throws up outside a club. Sally goes to find him, and he goes home with her.

When George and Sally see George’s stepfather Jack (Sam Robards) on the street, looking aimless, George begins to see that the man is not going to work; and George finds out his stepfather’s marketing research company has been closed, evicted from its office. There is a certain symmetry between George’s difficulties in school and the failure of his stepfather. Are social standards of success a necessary guide, or a cruel imposition? Is it sick not to fit in, and not to meet expectations? Is the truth only a matter of perspective and available information, with or without sympathy? After a fight with his stepfather, George seeks Sally and discovers she has begun a relationship with Dustin: Sally says there was nothing really—no sex—between she and George, and Dustin says he did not think George was ready for Sally. George begins to avoid everyone. Withdrawal can be both self-affirmation and self-erasure: the affirmation of the private self and the denial of the public self. Is George really alone? George is given an ultimatum at school: to take the next three weeks to catch up on a year’s coursework, or not graduate. Whereas his other teachers expect papers and exams, his art teacher Harris (Jarlath Conroy), a feisty, grizzled old man, asks for only one true picture. Has George been lying to himself, afraid to challenge himself, afraid to fail? He certainly has lacked discipline. George’s life collapses—abandoned by Sally for Dustin, the end of his parents’ marriage, and the school’s threatening to deny him a diploma—and the crisis, rather than crushing him, inspires him to rise to the best that is expected of him. Does that kind of redemption only happen in movies? I wish we knew the exact thought that moved George to act: that might be priceless. One can guess that a boy has to risk hurt and accept imperfection, as well as have lasting goals of self-fulfillment and social purpose in order to live rather than merely to think about living, but it is good to have that confirmed. The originality of George as a character and the appeal of New York as a setting make the story easier to accept. It is a story about friendship, love, and art in New York, a story about growing up in a great city, a city that feels like home—and that never gets old. We may be born alone and die alone but some of us have art.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.