Eric D. Snider

How to Deal

Since it is against the law to make a teen-girl drama without having the teen-girl protagonist act as narrator, "How to Deal" has Halley Martin (Mandy Moore) act as its narrator. She says a lot of wise things at the beginning of the movie. Among them: "Why does love make people crazy?"

It makes you think, doesn't it? I mean, golly, Mandy Moore, why DOES love make people crazy?

"How to Deal" fails to answer this, or any other question, but it does address the issue of whether teenage girls will watch anything you put in front of them. The answer is yes.

Based on two novels by Sarah Dessen and adapted by Neena Beber (scribe for TV's "Daria," an infinitely smarter examination of teen girlhood), "How to Deal" shows how traumatic a girl's life can be by having EVERYTHING happen to Halley. Her parents divorce, her sister's engaged, there's a marriage, a pregnancy, a death, a car accident, mom wants to sell the childhood home -- all this thing needs is alcoholism to make it every After-School Special rolled into one. It is maudlin teen nonsense at its worst, its most sappy, its least believable.

Having seen her parents split up, and her sister about to marry a dweeb, and her best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) giving up her virginity, Halley is very much a down-with-love kind of girl. Then, as you might suspect, she starts spending time with Macon (Trent Ford). As prescribed in these kinds of films, Macon is a cute, soft boy at Halley's high school who doesn't hang with any regular crowd and is considered a bit of an oddball, but the cool kind of oddball, not the nerdy kind. He's super-nice and doesn't try to take advantage of Halley or anything, but she pushes him away because she doesn't want to fall in love, I think. In the midst of this, all of the aforementioned traumas occur, one by one, like a series of predictable, dull dominos, like maybe dominos that don't have any dots on them or something.

Anyway, there's a scene in the middle where Halley and her sister and mother (played by the wonderful Allison Janney) have dinner with the sister's fiance and his snotty parents. Halley's pot-smoking grandmother is there, too. (She used to smoke pot for medicinal reasons, but now she just smokes it.) There's a lukewarm "Meet the Parents"-type exchange that isn't very funny, and barely even seems to be trying, and then Halley goes to the restroom to smoke a cigarette (which she never does elsewhere in the film), and then she sets off the smoke detector, which brings everyone running, and then the family dog starts humping Allison Janney's leg. If there's ever been a more confused jumble of situational humor, lowbrow camp and teen angst than this sequence, I'd like to see it. It would appear the director, Clare Kilner, has a knack for none of those genres, so she tossed them all in at once just to see what would happen.

I'll say this for the movie: Mandy Moore is a truly charming presence. She doesn't elevate the material, exactly, but she doesn't get mired in it, either. She has a strength to her, a resilience, that will serve her well, should she ever happen to be cast in a good film. You know, one that makes sense, and has a point, and isn't boring. She needs to escape this teenage pablum, though, before she does a domestic violence docudrama and ends her career before it begins.

Grade: C-

Rated PG-13, one F-word, some mild sexuality, a lot of thematic material

1 hr., 41 min.

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