"How to Deal" could be considered a thinking-person's entry into the teen genre, in that there isn't a bet in sight or a climactic scene set at the prom. It does, however, give "Terms of Endearment" a run for its money. Marriage, divorce, pregnancy, death, car accidentsthey all make an appearance in a story that often wavers dangerously close to feeling overstuffed and contrived, but is saved by a decidedly smart and accurate portrayal of each subject. Of course, such a thing may happen when a motion picture is based on two separate novels, "Someone Like You" and "That Summer," by Sara Dessen. Attempting to cram two books' worth of plot material into a 100-minute movie is not a very good idea, but "How to Deal" squeaks by with astute writing (credited to Neena Beber) and effectively well-rounded performances from its ensemble.
16-year-old Halley Martin (Mandy Moore) has never been in love, and doesn't much want to be. Having witnessed her parent's divorce, her dad's (Peter Gallagher) quick recoupling with a much-younger woman, and her best friend, Scarlett's (Alexandra Holden), suffering after her beloved boyfriend's sudden death, Halley has become jaded and cynical on all things romantic. Out to change her ways and help her to discover that true love is possible is the sincere and handsome Macon (Trent Ford), a classmate whom she feels connected with. Meanwhile, Halley's older sister, Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison), begins making plans for her own wedding, while her unhappy mother (Allison Janney) unexpectedly finds a soul mate where she least expects one.
Directed by Clare Kilner, "How to Deal" is a slice-of-life drama more serious than most of its teen film counterparts. The aforementioned subjects it deals with are very real ones and handled with a minimum of mawkishness, even if the sheer amount of them that occur in the film's timeframe of less than one year is slightly convoluted. The picture, then, benefits from lacking a simple and frivolous plot that can be summed up in a sentence.
At its center is a strong and complex lead character who has actual beliefs and morals that she refuses to compromise for anyone. In only her second leading role (after 2002's "A Walk to Remember
"), singer Mandy Moore has developed into a mature and natural actress, an undeniably instinctive talent who could easily have a long and successful film career if she so wishes. Moore makes the character of Halley her own, quite a feat for someone who was trained more as a music performer than an acting one.
Giving sharp-eyed support are Allison Janney (2002's "The Hours
"), hitting all the right notes with her usual alternating brand of poignancy and comic intuition as Halley's mother; Alexandra Holden (2002's "The Hot Chick
"), as Scarlett, making the most of a role than unfortunately decreases in screentime as the film progresses; the classy Nina Foch (2002's "Pumpkin
"), very funny as Halley's pot-smoking grandmother; and Mary Catherine Garrison (2002's "Moonlight Mile
"), excellent as Halley's close sister, Ashley. It should also be noted Garrison portrays inebriation with more accuracy than I can remember seeing outside of a documentary on the subject.
In his first major role, Trent Ford (2001's "Gosford Park
") stands out as Halley's love interest, Macon, precisely because he makes the viewer feel as if they have known people exactly like him in their own lives. Ford is good-looking, but not classically handsome; he is tall and lanky, with too-long hair that is always sweeping over his eyes. At the same time, he makes a valid attempt to really listen to Halley, making it easy to see why she would fall for him, and just as easy to understand why Halley would be hurt when his teenage immaturity leads him to a bad judgment call. As good as Ford is, it is the love story between he and Moore that is the weakest subplot in a movie filled with rich character work. Simply put, this sort of rocky romance that inevitably ends happily has been seen countless times before, and carried out with more conviction.
"How to Deal" benefits more often than not by taking the road less traveled in teen films, where more emphasis is put on the characters than an easy plot synopsis. Director Clare Kilner refuses to condescend to her target audience, offering something that adults may be able to enjoy just as much as teens. Because of this, when the movie makes a misstep, such as a silly and over-ironic development in the third act, it is all the more disappointing. "How to Deal" is an ambitious coming-of-age film, less predictable than most, with a sparkling turn by Mandy Moore. Unfortunately, as in life, it is far from perfect.