It’s clear that Gavin Wiesen based The Art of Getting By off his own adolescence: He attended private school in New York City and bears a striking resemblance to the movie’s star, Freddie Highmore. (Or technically, Highmore looks a lot like his director.) Originally titled Homework, the movie follows reclusive smartass George (Highmore), who gets away with doing no homework during his senior year, and Emma Roberts as Sally, a popular girl who brings him into her world of parties and fun.
This is Wiesen’s first feature, and took years to come together: The movie was picked up by Fox Searchlight for distribution only after it screened at Sundance. Wiesen cut his teeth working for director Bruce Paltrow on the 2000 movie Duets (starring daughter Gwyneth) and says that the experience was integral in showing him the difficulties and fun of movie production. “But you have to kill yourself just to get the privilege to get to that point,” he says.
Now that Wiesen is at that point, we chatted with him about high school, first loves, and how the movie stays away from any Gossip Girl comparisons.
Even though the characters go to school in New York, their stories are nowhere near as outlandish as Gossip Girl plotlines. Did you actively work to stay away from that comparison?
Wiesen: When I first sat down to write [the movie], I donâ€™t think Gossip Girl existed. Aesthetically and tonally, this was the anti-Gossip Girlâ€”same world, same sorts of situations on a very basic level, but a totally different set of preoccupations for the story we were telling. Itâ€™s true about New York: These kids have the access to go out when theyâ€™re younger; you donâ€™t have to drive; the drinking laws are less stringent; most kids carry fake IDs. You grow up faster in NY, and thatâ€™s of course what Gossip Girl puts front-and-center. For us, it was more in the texture of the world they lived in, but it wasnâ€™t the main issue.
What do you mean by â€śother preoccupationsâ€ť?
Wiesen: Graduating high school, first love or first sexual experiencesâ€”and really the main preoccupation that is endemic to New York more than anything else is growing up fast and behaving more like an adult before you truly are one. Feeling like youâ€™re still a child in a very adult worldâ€”those kinds of tensions.
Speaking to the child-adult dynamic, the kids seem to know how to take care of themselves better than their parents do.
Wiesen: One of the things Iâ€™m proud of with the movie is that itâ€™s an accurate portrayal of parents, [though] not all parents. Parents are just older human beings; they can be as flawed and as lost as a 17-year-old trying to figure it all out. In the case of Sally, sheâ€™s a parent to her mother. She has developed this stronger, more stable persona in reaction to this all-over-the-place, very outgoing mother (Elizabeth Reaser). And thatâ€™s something that I think kids do, also: They sometimes develop their personalities in reaction to the personalities of their parents. But what it really is for them is a way to understand that you can be flawed and still be a good person, or still be dealing with problems when youâ€™re 35, 45, 55. That doesnâ€™t mean you canâ€™t find a way through them, and break through and figure things out.