HAPPINESS is something you have to look after, be vigilant about,” tenderly advises a mother in Gavin Wiesen’s impressive debut feature.
The writer-director has certainly been vigilant about ensuring our happiness with this touching coming-of-age story, crafting detailed characters and dialogue that we believe in from the opening frame.
Admittedly, the plot is predictable and many big screen teenagers have stumbled and fallen just like the laconic hero of Wiesen’s imagination, who describes himself as “the Teflon slacker”.
However, what The Art Of Getting By lacks in originality, it makes up for in sincerity and bittersweet charm.
Fatalistic high school student George Zinavoy (Freddie Highmore) doesn’t see any point in completing class assignments and the socially awkward loner is on the verge of failing to graduate.
“I have a real problem with motivating, but I’ll try,” he tells principal Martinson (Blair Underwood), not really believing those words himself.
When his mother Vivian (Rita Wilson) and step-father Jack (Sam Robards) discover he is on academic probation, George convinces them as well that there is no need to worry.
He just needs to apply himself.
By chance, George crosses paths with Sally (Emma Roberts) and he takes the blame and the punishment for her transgression during school hours.
In return, she introduces George to a world of parties and colour he never knew existed.
He also finds a mentor for his artistic endeavours in painter Dustin (Michael Angarano) – a school alumnus, who is immediately taken with Sally.
“You like her?” Dustin asks George. “You should like her if you don’t.”
The Art Of Getting By is a charming and moving portrait of growing pains, distinguished by a compelling lead performance from Highmore as a boy on the cusp of manhood, who describes himself as “kind of a misanthrope ... not by choice, kind of a fact.”
The actor doesn’t strike one false note getting beneath the skin of his disenfranchised and painfully lonely misfit.
He looks awkward in his own company and anguish ripples across his face when Sally diffuses any possible sexual tension by telling George up front, “You’re my only real friend. Let’s not ruin it.”
Angarano and Underwood offer solid support as mentors, who either disappoint George (“I thought you were so cool”) or provide him with a shocking ultimatum to shake him out of the fug.
The stuttering romance with Roberts carouses us between smiles and tears and crucially, Wiesen draws together the narrative threads without resorting too readily to hoary cliches and sickly sentiment.
His first film doesn’t just “get by” - it courts and steadily wins our affections.