Facile, formulaic and utterly charm-free, “Homework” runs 84 minutes with nary a sincere emotional moment. Helmer Gavin Wiesen’s screenplay doesn’t add much to the disaffected-youth genre apart from a soulless gloss, and young Freddie Highmore, as the disaffected but artistically gifted George Zinavoy, is trapped in his own mannerisms, consistently reminding the viewer that he’s supposed to be playing someone special, yet never closing the argument. Sundance pickup by Fox Searchlight will ensure wide exposure, but word of mouth could stop pic in its tracks.
Set in upper Upper Manhattan, among a privileged society where high school students can drink hassle-free in bars, spend their evenings in nightclubs and morbidly obsess over mortality, “Homework” is an outsider story with an anemic rebel at its center. Yes, George defies all instruction at home and school, but his motivations are unclear, his passion all but absent. While sneaking a smoke one day (on his exclusive school’s roof deck), he meets the precocious Sally Howe (Emma Roberts), who sets him on an all-new course while setting his heart and hormones aflutter.
Sally lives with her promiscuous mother, Charlotte (Elizabeth Reaser), while George lives with his cloying mother, Vivian (Rita Wilson), and oppressive stepfather, Jack (Sam Robards). All in all, however, the problems of two little people — these two, anyway — don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, and “Homework” suggests a portrait of the artist as a young whiner. The relative insignificance of the problems facing these tortured characters isn’t offensive, exactly, but it’s terribly hard to care about people who lobby so insistently about their pain in a film that makes every effort to be so safe, slick and easily digestible.
Highmore is in a transitional phase between kid parts (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “August Rush”) and adult roles, but, as often happens with child actors, naturalness has been replaced with mannerism. As George, he telegraphs every mood and emotion, and Roberts is equally fussy and shallow. The one solid performance comes from Michael Angarano as an artist who, as George’s mentor, seems dangerously interested in Sally. Angarano’s solid perf renders the character far more sympathetic than he probably should be.
Production values are tops, especially Ben Kutchins’ shooting.