As tough as it is being a teen-ager, it's even tougher making a movie about teens that neither condescends nor oversimplifies. How to Deal does neither in its depiction of a young girl struggling with love, sex and independence, trying to find her place in the world at a time everyone insists she's too young to have one. The result is far from a great movie, but it's a noble effort that deserves plenty of credit for trying.
Mandy Moore, playing a far more complex character than in her first film, A Walk to Remember, is Halley Martin, a conflicted and confounded 16-year-old who is certain of only one thing: She never wants to fall in love. And it's hard to argue with her reason: Every relationship she's known has come to a bad end.
There's her parents' marriage, which ended when her disc-jockey father, a Wolfman Jack-wannabe played by Peter Gallagher (a ridiculous character and ham-fisted performance that constitute the film's weakest link), succumbed to the wiles of another woman. There's her sister, Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison), who's marrying an uptight blue-blood who's bland beyond all reason. And there's her best friend, Scarlett (Alexandra Holden), a high-school junior who is pregnant.
Insisting she's too smart to fall into something so fraught with danger, Halley sulks her way through life (though, to her credit, Moore lets a little light shine through the darkness every once in a while). But then a classmate named Macon (Trent Ford, cast because he's nearly as cute as Moore) shows up and charms her with his outlaw-lite ways - he's supposed to be some kind of bad boy, but he's way more impish than evil.
Halley insists she's not falling for Macon. "I just like kissing him," she tells Scarlett. But her friends (and we) know better.
Will Halley (who appears to have been named for the comet, one of the film's many involving touches) accede to the inevitable and acknowledge she's falling for this guy? And if she does, will there be the (she thinks) inevitable bad end?
Director Claire Kilner and screenwriter Neena Beber, working from a pair of novels by Sarah Dessen, bring to the screen a teen-ager who wants to do both the right thing and her own thing, and who rails against the world when those two desires don't always jibe. It's a conundrum every adolescent faces, and How to Deal refuses to dismiss Halley's dilemma as just one of those things; it's obviously more than that to her, even if she'll look back on this 10 years from now and wonder what all the fuss was about.
Kilner, though far from the nimblest of directors, has a knack for coming up with little touches that add great texture and warmth to the narrative. When one of Halley's classmates dies, his face is printed on the leaflets handed out at the funeral. Caught by a sudden rainstorm, the mourners cover their heads with the leaflets, and an overhead shot reveals a sea of the young man's face, the ink being washed away by the falling rain - a poignant and wondrously visual representation of loss.
Unfortunately, the film is marred by an uncertainty of tone that feels forced onto it, comic moments - most involving a cannabis-smoking grandma played by Nina Foch - that are more jarring than amusing.
What ultimately saves the day are the performances of Moore and Allison Janney, who plays her frustrated, heartbroken mother with a mixture of resignation and resolve that never rings less-than-true.
How to Deal betrays itself a bit at the end, as Halley hears a bit of greeting-card wisdom and acts on it (she should be too smart for that). Still, there's pleasure to be had in a film that suggests teen life can be hard without necessarily being tragic.
How to Deal
Starring Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, Trent Ford
Directed by Claire Kilner
Rated PG-13 (sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements)
Released by New Line Cinema
Time 101 minutes
Sun Score: ***