The Art of Getting By

“The Art of Getting By” would be a good film to watch if you were cramming for your Indie Films of the 2000s final and didn’t have time to see everything on the syllabus. It’s like a Cliffs Notes version of every teen-centered Sundance comedy of the last decade.

Precocious teenage boy who’s a slacker at school because he finds the material unstimulating? Check. Calls his teachers by their first names, cuz he’s quirky like that? Check. Reads philosophy, watches foreign films in repertory theaters, fixates on death and mortality? Has major potential as an artist/writer/thinker if he’ll just apply himself? Falls in love with a classmate, leading to a journey of self-discovery and coming of age? Check, check, check.

The familiarity of all these elements isn’t the problem; it’s the unimaginative fashion in which they’ve been cobbled together. It’s the first feature by writer-director Gavin Wiesen, and I don’t think there’s a single fresh idea anywhere in it. No witty dialogue, interesting characters, or amusing scenarios, either. It should have a plain brown label and be called ‘Movie.’

‘Tis a pity, because it has a good cast. Freddie Highmore (“Finding Neverland,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) plays George, a Manhattan lad who reads Camus and ditches school to watch Louis Malle films. Too smart for his own good, he’s obsessed with the fact that we will all die eventually, and so why does it matter whether we do our trigonometry homework? His mother (Rita Wilson) is concerned and involved; his stepfather (Sam Robards) is barely present.

George meets Sally (Emma Roberts), a fellow 12th-grader who’s also a bit of a free spirit (i.e., she smokes cigarettes). Sally’s parents are divorced, and her drunken, slutty mother (Elizabeth Reaser) flirts with George and gives him alcohol. Sally and George are just friends at first, and he frets about her relationships with other guys, the cool kids with rich parents.

At school, the principal (Blair Underwood) is on George’s case to finish his work so he can graduate. His English teacher (Alicia Silverstone) is frustrated by George’s refusal to do any assignments, but awestruck by how much he knows about the literature they’re studying. His art teacher (Jarlath Conroy) wants him to express himself on canvas. An alumnus of the school, Dustin (Michael Angarano), now a moderately successful artist himself, becomes a mentor of sorts, though why the principal thought a slacker burn-out like this guy would be a good influence on George is anybody’s guess.

And so it goes, in this manner, for 84 minutes — inoffensive, forgettable entertainment on the order of “Tadpole,” “Adventureland,” “Garden State,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and numerous others, but with nothing to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack. The novelty of these “alternative” characters and “sophisticated” situations wore off long ago. You can’t just toss ’em up on the screen and let things play out. You have to DO something with them.

The movie is further hindered by a plot device that just doesn’t make any sense: Basically, George has three weeks to do ALL his homework from the past year, or he won’t graduate. (Will he finally be able to commit to something and see it through and thus grow up??) A subplot has George’s stepfather lying to the family about his financial situation; that one collapses into embarrassing and implausible melodrama. There are some expensive last-minute plane trips and other romantic-comedy devices, too, just for good measure.

Highmore, Roberts, and Angarano are promising young actors who have done interesting things in the past and will probably do interesting things again. “The Art of Getting By” (which was called “Homework” when it premiered at Sundance) just has them spinning their wheels, waiting for something better to come along.

C- (1 hr., 24 min.; PG-13, some profanity and adult themes.)