If not for its lack of self-awareness, The Art of Getting By would seem to be a spoof of ennui-inflicted teen dramas, because how else to explain the fact that Gavin Wiesen's debut is comprised of only clichés of clichés? On Manhattan's Upper East Side, high school senior George (Freddie Highmore) wanders the streets in his black trenchcoat, wracked by paralyzing depression over his belief that "everyone dies alone" and, thus, life is an "illusion" with no meaning. An opening-sequence snapshot implies that he's gleaned such existential faux-truths from reading Camus's The Stranger. The origins of these convictions, however, is less important than their negative impact on his chances for graduation, which as a kindly principal (Blair Underwood) makes clear, is in jeopardy if George doesn't finally start doing his homework instead of wasting time doodling in his textbooks. Those drawings supposedly prove that he has artistic talent, yet his art teacher (Jarlath Conroy)—who likes to punch students to motivate them and show affection—thinks he's squandering it because he's afraid to express something meaningful through his work. Luckily, true inspiration is just a cigarette smoke away, as an encounter with pretty classmate Sally (Emma Roberts) soon ignites George's heart, even if he's too afraid to risk their budding relationship by professing his love.
The Art of Getting By throws more complications George's way in the form of a friendship with artist Dustin (Michael Angarano), who digs Sally, as well as George's mom and stepfather's financial difficulties. Yet George's real problem is that he's an insufferable phony through and through, and so is his saga. "You have issues" and "You're a dork," proclaims Sally to George with admiration, while another kid sincerely states, after seeing George's sketches, "You're sensitive. The sensitive artiste." Of course, George is also beset by narcissism, dubbing himself "The Teflon Slacker" and proudly detailing his mopey-cool rules for cutting school, which involve eating noodles and going to Cinema Village matinees of Louis Malle's Zazie Dans le Métro. Wiesen thinks this collection of too-cool-to-live quirks amounts to an actual person, but there isn't a second during which George seems the least bit flesh and blood, whether he's drunkenly passing out on a curb in the middle of the night, briefly revealing his true brilliance by dropping analytical Thomas Hardy knowledge on his English teacher (Alicia Silverstone), or coping with rejection by endlessly listening to Leonard Cohen's "Winter Lady." And Sally isn't any more credible, courtesy of moments such as her rudely asking the clearly smitten George if he's a virgin, then suggesting they have sex, and then immediately and callously backing away from the offer.
To match his script's infatuation with tin-eared setups for one-liners and George's wannabe-meaningful declarations about himself, others, and life, Wiesen subscribes only to formulaic directorial devices, including ceaseless slow-motion sequences and musical montages set to emo rock. By the time George starts using the word "hussy" in everyday conversation and, shortly thereafter, his art teacher—demanding that George create a heartfelt painting—screams, "It can be painted in batshit!," The Art of Getting By has gone off the deep end into abject ludicrousness, a devolution exacerbated by Highmore's affected embodiment of above-it-all aimlessness. It's inevitable that George will right his wayward course after a few blow-ups with Sally and his unemployed stepfather (whom he stalks around the city, watching the guy waste days in coffee shops), yet a single moment of believable human interaction, conversation, or behavior might have at least alleviated such predictability. Instead, the story ends with altruistic farewell pity sex, academic triumph, and romantic reunion, all in a contrived manner made worse by Wiesen (via Underwood's principal) positing this happy ending as proof that "anything can happen." Angarano's pretentious douchebag may opine that he doesn't know the difference between art that's interesting and art that's bullshit, but it's not hard to know on which side of that line this film exists.