CHICAGO – Mention the name Harry Lennix, and images of his many character roles are bound to emerge – Harold Cooper in the TV series “The Blacklist,” General Swanwick from “Batman v Superman” and Commissioner Blades from Spike Lee’s recent “Chi-Raq.” The deeply knowledgeable Lennix brings his years of dramatic expertise, as he directs the Congo Square Theatre Company’s world premiere stage play “A Small Oak Tree Runs Red.’
‘The Art of Getting By’ Explores a Teenage Wasteland
CHICAGO – The angst ridden, doom-and-gloom adolescent has been fodder for the movies ever since teenagers were invented. From James Dean to “Heathers,” the juvenile anti-hero trying to figure out life has lit up the screen. Freddie Highmore takes his turn in “The Art of Getting By.”
This is Holden Caulfield (”Catcher in the Rye”) territory, because the setting is New York City among the upper middle class, private school types. While the character of George Zinavoy (Highmore) can never reach the rarified fatalism of Mr. Caulfield, his questioning of existence does have a mordant perversion. And although the film makes some bad “happy ending” decisions, for the most part it exposes the subject matter in an interesting manner.
George Zinavoy is in his senior year at a college prep New York City academy. He barely can tolerate school, and sits in his classes moodily drawing unique images in a sketchbook. For some reason the school tolerates this, and George even has an ally in Principal Martinson (Blair Underwood). George’s rejection of conventional wisdom seeps into his family life, where his stepfather Jack (Sam Robards) is constantly prodding him to do better, and his mother Vivian (Rita Wilson) can’t seem to get through to him.
Life for George takes an unexpected turn when Sally (Emma Roberts), one of his classmates, takes an interest in his dark creationism. They become friends, but George’s natural hormonal instinct wants more. Around the same time George meets a Brooklyn artist named Dustin (Michael Angarano), who takes an interest in both mentoring the George’s art and perhaps hooking up with Sally. That situation will eventually create a conflict
Photo credit: © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Films
There are a number of events that starts George on a downhill road. He and Sally need to part because their relationship doesn’t go further, his kinship with the school principal goes into crisis mode and his family life contains a secret that will eventually change everything. This is all about transition, including George’s awkward and instinctive boy-to-man progression.
Writer/director Gavin Wiesen paints George as a desperate but very interesting character and that is the glue that keeps the film together. Freddie Highmore nails the persona, and even though the actor is teen idol cute, his attitude and bearing does make him unattractive to a larger high school society. In what is obviously an autobiographical film for Wiesen, Highmore is able to handle the shifts in mood and consequence for George and keep him somewhat real. It was difficult and schizophrenic material, but Highmore was up for it.
The casting of the supporting players was also notable. Rita Wilson plays the role of conflicted wife and mother aptly, there were no false moves. Sam Robards, playing George’s stepfather in a secretive mode, handled the sorrow of his situation with a wounded pride that was palpable. The faculty of the school include 1980s and ‘90s stalwarts Blair Underwood (”L.A. Law”) and Alicia Silverstone (”Clueless”), which was fun, and they seemed to be having a good time doing something different.
The younger cast also performed admirably. Emma Roberts (”Nancy Drew”) finds a nice place for her beautiful-girl-understanding-complicated-guy character, and she has a natural screen presence that the camera loves. Michael Angarano, as the artist mentor Dustin, seems a bit muted for a supposed wild man painter, but steps on the gas towards the end when George and he face off. Even Sasha Spielberg gets into the act, showing off some skills that separate her from the family crest.
Unfortunately where the film breaks down is toward the end. The reason that George comes around in not a bad one, there was just the feeling that the “Theme from Rocky” was going to start at any minute, given the way the story was happily tied up. One of George’s final assignments was to create a piece of art that would capture his high school teacher’s emotional center. Successful or not, it was a mistake to see the finished work. In the context of the film we relate to George, we cheer for George, but too much tidy happiness causes a bit of a disconnection.
Photo credit: © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Films
If anybody has had the heartache of bad timing or lost loves, George represents acutely what those early years mean in that context. One of the great lines has to do with angst regarding the friendship with Sally versus the need to jump her bones. “I’m allergic to my own hormones,” George intones, and who among us haven’t felt that? We become victims of our biological needs and that is where the film really sings.
George Zinavoy is not as angry as Holden Caulfield but he certainly is as confused with the sorrows of adolescence. The truth is that this is only the beginning, even though in the landscape of the teenage wasteland it feels like the end.