Freddie Highmore is no longer the cute little kid banging on an acoustic guitar or frolicking through mythical lands. He's all grown up in the teen romance The Art of Getting By. And while he's had plenty of practice playing lost characters searching for something (a father figure in Finding Neverland, a gold ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Highmore faces an issue this time that's much bigger than himself and even the movie: the meaning of life.
At its heart, The Art of Getting By is a coming-of-age tale that looks like dozens of other coming-of-age tales. Highmore plays George Zinavoy, a smart-ass slacker who secludes himself from the rest of the world. He'd rather bury his head in his doodles than complete simple math problems, which lands him dangerously close to suspension, expulsion, and no diploma. Bumbling along his senior year, he has no friends, a negligent father, an overbearing mother, a pompous stepfather, and, eventually, a girl who seems to have all the answers to his tortured-artist issues.
George finds solace in Sally Howe (It's Kind of a Funny Story's Emma Roberts), who unwittingly helps him change his fatalistic ways. She also helps him lighten up, treating him to late-night liquor binges at dance clubs and embarrassing morning woodies, which provide some levity to the overly serious proceedings. Along the way, George meets Sally's deranged mom (Elizabeth Reaser), an advocate for underage drinking and afternoon rendezvous with strange men, and struggling artist Dustin (Michael Angarano), a kindred spirit he befriends.
As his friendship with Sally progresses, George starts to fall for her — but like most teenage boys, he doesn't know how to handle it. In a fit of confusion, he ends their friendship after turning down an impulsive offer from Sally to have sex on Valentine's Day. He promptly resumes his tortured-artist routine and withdraws from everyone. A series of events leads to possibly not graduating, family secrets, and maybe losing Sally for good. So he turns to his art and, ironically, schoolwork to pick up the pieces of his shattered life.
First-time feature writer and director Gavin Wiesin does a capable job of stretching out the thin material, but the movie still drags. The painfully awkward kissing scenes between Highmore and Roberts don't help matters. Neither does Highmore, who may be 19, but just try shaking your nostalgia for the 10-year-old boy who chased butterflies in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. The Art of Getting By may be about finding your way in the world, but it gets lost in a conventional story.