March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts make a winning couple in a pleasantly mellow comedy-drama

Moviegoers who need a vacation from superheroes, explosions, sub-standard sequels and 3D headaches can find a bit of solace in “The Art of Getting By,” an easygoing comedy-drama that takes its cues from the relaxed, no-nonsense performances of stars Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts. In a time when the term “romantic comedy” can either mean a strident, obnoxious mess like “Something Borrowed” or a raunchfest like “Bridesmaids,” “Art” goes its own way, providing quiet charm, appealing characters and that sort of 1990s off-the-cuff indie-film attitude that rarely seems to show up these days.

The movie was written and directed by Gavin Wiesen, who is smart enough not to oversell his jokes or his themes. In some ways, “Art” could be a contemporary cousin of writer-director Cameron Crowe’s “Say Anything”: Both films are about intelligent teens who know there is life after high school, but aren’t sure exactly how to start living it.

George (Highmore) reads Albert Camus, listens to Leonard Cohen and whips up illustrations worthy of R. Crumb, but he has no motivation to complete his course work at Manhattan’s tony Morgan Preparatory School.

“You’re really weird,” classmate Sally (Roberts) tells him, although she makes the comment sound like a compliment. Although she runs with the school’s glitterati — the painfully privileged kids who navigate the nightclub jungles and crash in luxury apartments paid for by their missing-in-action moms and dads — she doesn’t really connect with her friends’ mindless mindset, perhaps because her own mom (Elizabeth Reaser) is a long-in-the-tooth sex kitten who isn’t going to graduate to cougar status anytime soon.

Wiesen charts the progression of Sally and George’s friendship in a series of nicely detailed scenes (they skip school to see director Louis Malle’s “Zazie dans le Metro”) that allow Roberts and Highmore to establish a convincing connection. Unfortunately for George and Sally (and millions of teens like them) the road out of the friendship zone is sometimes hard to find. George, who is almost proudly unambitious, can’t find the energy to let Sally know how he really feels and naturally, Sally begins to wonder if George is worth waiting for.

There’s only one major emotional outburst in all of “Art,” and it doesn’t involve George and Sally; how refreshing to see a story that’s not building up to the dreaded Hysterical Heartbreak scene in which the couple is put through a contrived crisis so that the happy ending can seem that much sweeter. Wiesen’s screenplay sidesteps many of the genre’s irritating conventions in favor of a more low-key, slightly bittersweet approach. The movie also benefits from sturdy supporting work from Rita Wilson as George’s mother, Blair Underwood as a strict but semi-sympathetic principal and Michael Angarano as an artist who further complicates George and Sally’s situations. Also on hand to give any former teens of the '90s a jolt: Alicia Silverstone, our beloved Cher of "Clueless," who has now graduated to playing a humorous teacher. Alicia, humorless? As if!