At one point in THE ART OF GETTING BY, its disaffected protagonist declares that he is allergic to hormones. Ironically, so is the film that tells his story, and thats a shame because the seething turmoil of emotions at work need more than the anemic frame given them here.
George (Freddie Highmore) is a self-described Teflon slacker. Obsessed with the inevitability of death, convinced that everything between birth and that final dirt nap is an illusion, he has settled into a life of doodling accomplished sketches in his textbooks and politely refusing to engage in anything resembling life. Until he meets Sally (Emma Roberts), a would-be rebel smoking on the roof of the exclusive prep school they both attend. When discovered by a teacher with the tell-tale aroma of tobacco in the air, he takes the rap, being the more accustomed to finding himself at odds with Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood). Sally is lovely. George is smitten. She just wants to be friends. She has few, despite running with the cool crowd. They bond over home problems, her mother has boundary issues, his step-father (Sam Robards) is acting oddly and his mother (Rita Wilson) frets about the her crumbling family without being able to do anything helpful about it.
As a coming-of-age story, this has nothing new to say, nor a particularly novel way of saying it. Highmore gives a remarkable performance, obnoxious and disrespectful without ever quite being rude about it, merely decisive in a self-possessed way that is a cunning amalgam of adult sensibilities and teenage stubbornness. While the film itself is cold, Highmore himself has a tenacious warmth, able to make tears well up in his eyes without them ever quite spilling over the lower lids. The subtle play of emotions over his face, from hope to devastation, as Sally does a monologue on their relationship that ends with them not having the sex she had just offered is brilliant. He alone makes the film watchable. The rest of the actors, Michael Angarano as the artist on the cusp of a brilliant career, Alicia Silvertone as Georges teacher who is genuinely grieved to give up on him, are fine, and certainly the story is filmed beautifully, but the spark of savage passions that should run through the experience like the gash of a bleeding wound is not there, and the result is a curious diorama of tedium.