Gavin Wiesen’s first film, as passive and vanilla as its title, continues the numbing trendlet begun in 2008 with Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist: dramatizing the stupefying dullness of privileged white teenagers in New York City.
Protagonist George (Freddie Highmore) is an 18-year-old Upper West Side Bartleby, preferring not to do his private-school homework because, as he glibly explains to his trig teacher, “I couldn’t shake this awareness of my mortality.” Filling the margins of his textbooks with doodles, George sports the usual accoutrements of the harmless adolescent loner: unkempt bangs, a herringbone overcoat, a paperback copy of The Stranger. Besides not handing in his essay on The Mayor of Casterbridge on time, the boy’s most outrageous behavior is smoking an occasional cigarette—a vice shared by fellow Morgan School senior Sally (Emma Roberts), whom he meets taking a puff on the roof.
The two start palling around, sharing, every so often, stories of hazily sketched out trouble at home. George’s stepdad isn’t paying the utility bills on time; Sally is being raised by a sexually inappropriate mom (unlucky Elizabeth Reaser) only 16 years older than she is. But in Wiesen’s completely risk-averse script, no potential crisis exists long enough to divert attention from—or enliven—this chemistry-less couple.
With The Art of Getting By, the 20-year-old Roberts—whose breakthrough role was her smart spin on the girl detective in Nancy Drew (2007)—continues her run of well-off-white-teens-in-Gotham movies, which began last year with Twelve and It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Though both films are equally dismissible, they at least created marginally interesting characters for the young actress: In the former, she plays a principled ingénue among drugged-out, blow-jobbing prep-school twits; she’s prone to self-mutilation and splenetic outbursts in the latter.
In Wiesen’s film, Roberts’s most audacious behavior is offering the male lead the bottom bunk of her trundle bed. Sally, who has no hobbies or passions of her own, exists solely as an opaque emotional catalyst for tamped-down George. He’s in love for the first time but can’t admit it, and she just wants to keep things platonic. Inert George reacts with some ardor during Sally’s late-act courtship with Dustin (Michael Angarano)—a recent Morgan alum and successful artist who had become a sort-of mentor to George, taking the lad to the Whitney so we can hear them talk nonsense about Wayne Thiebaud’s Pie Counter—but barely displays signs of a pulse otherwise. Poorly written by Wiesen, George becomes even more oppressively dull by the actor who plays him. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Highmore, two years younger than Roberts and having a difficult time transitioning from the bowl-cut cuties he played opposite Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland (2004) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), is his face: With its soft, androgynous features, the actor’s mug may spawn a rival tumblr to Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber.
Crafted not to give the slightest offense, The Art of Getting By makes the great—and even the mediocre—teen movies of 30 years ago, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Fame, and Foxes, look even more radical in comparison, with their depiction of obnoxious, horny, property-destroying teens. Kids in those movies also had jobs and the tiniest sense of the world outside their neighborhood. Neither George nor Sally has to clock in anywhere; their cab ride across the bridge to visit Dustin’s studio in Brooklyn makes a day trip to Kings County seem like the most exotic voyage ever undertaken. Thoughtful movies about adolescent misfits are still being made, as the upcoming Terri and Pariah prove. But Wiesen’s film, too timid to even be labeled “square,” brooks no messiness, no melodrama, no blemishes—in short, nothing true to adolescence at all.