For a film that revolves around a teen with a case of existential angst so bad that he can't bring himself to do any homework for school--because what's the point, we all die alone some day anyway--"The Art of Getting By" is surprisingly sweet and upbeat.
Partly responsible is a peppy soundtrack that's as cheery-quirky as the film hopes to be, but a large share of the credit has to go to Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"). As George Zinavoy, he's a benign fatalist who retains a pleasant personality despite his conviction that life pretty much has no meaning. Don't look for this kid to wear black, mope around, or bang his head to heavy-metal tunes, though. He's as virginal and clean-cut as high-school seniors come these days, so likable that even teachers and a principal frustrated with him can't get too angry.
But nothing adds meaning to a life like a new love--even the unrequited sort--especially when the person needing a boost is a teenager. Naturally each teen has family issues that drive them to seek comfort in someone his/her own age, because that's pretty much the trope for films like this. Which is to say, we've seen this before in countless other indie films. The only difference is Highmore and his co-star, Emma Roberts ("Aquamarine," "It's Kind of a Funny Story"). Both are accomplished actors, especially for their ages. But even their talents aren't enough to compensate for a script that doesn't deviate enough from the formula.
Then again, I know how George feels. Almost everyone goes through an existentialist phase in high school or college, where Sartre seems like a prophet and emptiness a universal condition. But of course it's easy to feel empty at that age, when you're still trying to find your place in the world . . . which involves first trying to find yourself. The thing of it is, it's almost entirely too facile and superficial to have a girl be responsible for George's turnaround. There are two kinds of people: those who never give their own mortality a thought, and those who can think of nothing else. For the latter, a relationship might be a nice pick-me-up, but you can't get rid of that kind of angst and depression so quickly and easily.
Those are the film's flaws. The strengths? That peppy soundtrack, along with some unobtrusive but intimate camera work and solid performances. It's a well-acted film, even down to some of the minor characters whose job it is to infuse an otherwise bland and ordinary little tale with quirkiness . . . like a grey-bearded art teacher who curses and grabs you by the face to get your attention, or an easy-going teen who asks if you'd like to be set up with one of her "slutty" friends.
In the end, "The Art of Getting By" feels like a film that takes its cue from its title--an easygoing film that's not as quirky as it wants to be and does just enough to make you glad you watched.
For an indie film, the production values are quite good, though as you'd expect with a low-budget operation there are some scenes that look a little soft. But I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and the colors, the detail, and the blacks are all at pleasing levels. There's a slight-but-acceptable layer of film grain throughout, which is totally compatible with the feel of the film. "The Art of Getting By" is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with an additional audio option in English Descriptive Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. This is a totally dialogue-driven film, so don't expect much other than great clarity and purity of tone and just enough bass to lend some balance to the soundtrack. When you really notice the DTS-HD MA is during the musical interludes, which are frequent enough to remind you that there's life after all.
Director Gavin Wiesen's commentary track is as low-key as the film, though it's crammed with enough insights and background to make it an above-average listen. Then there are two TV promos: "HBO First Look: The Making of The Art of Getting By," and "Fox Movie Channel presents In Character with Freddie Highmore." Aside from those, the only other bonus features are awfully slight: "New York Slice of Life" is an under three-minute look at the locations in the film, while "On Young Love" zeroes in on the George/Sally relationship . . . in not much longer than the first feature. Finally, there's the theatrical trailer.
The cover boasts that this film comes from "the studio that brought you ‘Juno' and ‘(500) Days of Summer,'" but both of those films had more natural quirkiness going for them and a plot that was more compelling. "The Art of Getting By" is the kind of light entertainment you watch to "get by" on a night when you don't feel like anything too heavy. It's pleasant enough, and the stars make you want to spend time with them. Just don't expect much depth or philosophical exploration.