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The Art of Getting By: Sundance Review

Homework
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

The Bottom Line

The chief function of this trite debut feature appears to be as a job application for its writer-director to join the Hollywood rom-com assembly line.

Venue:

Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Competition

Cast:

Freddie Highmore, Emma Roberts, Michael Angarano, Elizabeth Reaser, Sam Robards, Blair Underwood, Rita Wilson, Alicia Silverstone

Director-screenwriter:

Gavin Wiesen

PARK CITY -- When everyone, including the protagonist himself, keeps saying how weird and complicated he is, it’s unfortunate that he registers as simply dull. But that applies across the board in the narrow, artificial world of this vapid coming-of-age story.

From the opening voice-over in which he espouses a hackneyed brand of what’s-the-point juvenile fatalism, to his uniform of outsize overcoat and the Camus paperback he carries like an accessory, everything about George’s depression feels like a pose. There’s just not enough going on behind actor Freddie Highmore’s eyes to convince us this kid’s existential angst is real.

But lest it seem Highmore should bear the blame, he has plenty of company in a movie stuffed with recognizable talent but without a single interesting performance. First-time writer-director Gavin Wiesen clearly has access to means. The music rights alone probably cost more than most indie debuts. Random bursts of emo rock punctuate the soundtrack with the same regularity that clichéd snatches of slo-mo grace the visual field. But without them, a movie with almost nothing to say would probably be even emptier.

This kind of superficially slick, depressingly conventional, emotionally dishonest and patently well-connected filmmaking (Hollywood princess Sasha Spielberg even turns up briefly) is the antithesis of what Sundance is supposed to be about. As a result, it grates far more here than it would as innocuous multiplex or cable fare.

Smart but directionless George’s malaise causes him to check out in class at the uptown Manhattan prep school he attends. This prompts an academic probation warning from the principal (Blair Underwood), concern from his teachers (among them an uncredited Alicia Silverstone) and anxiety from his mother (Rita Wilson), who is dealing with her own issues. George’s stepfather (Sam Robards) has secretly gone bankrupt and the family’s financial security is crumbling.

Sneaking a cigarette on the roof at school, George meets blond beauty Sally (Emma Roberts). Her popularity doesn’t disguise her unhappiness, and her boozing, sexually voracious mother (Elizabeth Reaser) doesn’t exactly provide an authoritative guide to adulthood.

Since George and Sally are both bland and pretty, and both share the belief that their standard-issue dissatisfactions are monumental, they become fast friends -- over another emo-backed montage, replete with noodles and a Louis Malle movie. But while George carries a torch the size of the Statue of Liberty’s, and Sally practically engraves an invitation, he fails to make a move on her.

A compulsive sketcher, George nonetheless struggles to find his voice in art class. Enter Dustin (Michael Angarano), a semi-successful painter and self-interested phony who George mistakes for a mentor. Anyone who can’t see where it’s going when Dustin meets Sally is asleep. But the formula dictates a hurdle at this point.

It also demands a dramatic catalyst, which is where the now-standard fallback of the financial crisis comes in. As George’s options shrink in the run-up to graduation, the situation at home implodes. This provides Wilson with the movie’s one scene with a modicum of emotional resonance, and gives George the motivation he needs to wake up.

Wiesen’s overwritten screenplay has flavorless dialogue, scant humor beyond the cute, smile-inducing variety and zero complexity. As predictable in style as it is in content, Homework tries to come across as a personal story but feels entirely manufactured.

Production: Gigi Films, Goldcrest Pictures, Mint Pictures, Atlantic Pictures in association with Island Bound Prods.
Producers: P. Jennifer Dana, Kara Baker, Gia Walsh, Darren Goldberg
Executive producers: Andrew Levitas, David Sweeney, Henry Pincus, Patrick Baker, Nick Quested, Gretchen McGowan, Jonathan Gray, Anthony Gudas
Director of photography: Ben Kutchins
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Music: Alec Puro
Costume designer: Erika Munro
Editor: Mollie Goldstein
Sales: ICM
No rating, 84 minutes