It’s easy to make it through most of The Art Of Getting By without actually committing to any opinions about protagonist Freddie Highmore—particularly whether he’s sympathetic or just pathetic, and whether a single word he says is ever sincere. With his disingenuously angelic expression, polite reserve, and tendency toward bald statements like “I don’t have anything to say,” “I fear life,” and “I’m the Teflon slacker,” he comes across as this generation’s Ferris Bueller, a good-looking kid with a talent for disarming teachers and authority figures into letting him goof off. But Ferris only used his bullshitting skills to score himself the occasional vacation; Highmore’s character has drifted through his entire senior year of high school without completing an assignment. He creates elaborate drawings in math class, doodles half-assed cartoons in art class, and pretends he doesn’t know what book his lit class is discussing, even though he read and loved it. Is it because he’s a hyper-intellectual artist-type afflicted with early-onset nihilism and fatalistic angst? Or is he really just a lazy, smug, self-important asshole?
Like Highmore’s character, The Art Of Getting By takes a frustratingly long time to commit to any choices. First-time writer-director Gavin Wiesen packages the film as a modern John Hughes teen romance by way of Wes Anderson; the loose, floaty handheld camera and an all-the-right-names soundtrack (The Shins, Mates Of State, Pavement, French Kicks, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Leonard Cohen) give the film a dreamy indie vibe to go with Highmore’s life of noncommittal freefall. But it has to come down to earth at some point. And when it does, signs point more to “lazy asshole” than “creative genius.” First Highmore falls into a relationship with pretty, popular Emma Roberts, but lacks the courage or conviction to admit his feelings for her. Then he starts admiring local artist Michael Angarano, apparently rapt at the idea that even someone inarticulate and creatively confused can support himself and manage forward momentum. When Highmore’s refusal to make a move leaves room for Roberts and Angarano to drift together, however, the film finally commits, depicting the development not as a natural process by which two more mature people leave behind a posturing, childish friend, but as a cut-and-dried case of a villain trying to steal a shiny prize from a sensitive hero.
In that sense, The Art Of Getting By is simultaneously a coming-of-age film for sensitive late bloomers, and a Hughesian fantasy, a promise to the world’s high-school slackers that if they just nut up, the world (and their crush objects) will fall at their feet. But the specificity of the message—and its sheer wish-fulfillment unlikeliness—render it useless to all but the few viewers who will identify closely with Highmore’s frozen yet supercilious arrested development. By the end, the most charming thing about The Art Of Getting By is that while its adults cut Highmore far too much slack, they aren’t Hughes-movie oblivious idiots, and they eventually draw a few firm lines. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t daring enough to follow suit.