Mark Reviews Movies

HOW TO DEAL

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clare Kilner

Cast: Mandy Moore, Trent Ford, Allison Janney, Alexandra Holden, Peter Gallagher, Mary Catherine Garrison, Dylan Baker, Nina Foch

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 7/18/03


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Review by Mark Dujsik

Here's a sweet little movie so innocuous that it is immediately forgettable. How to Deal is about dealing, I guess; I mean, that's what the title says after all. It's about a girl dealing with everything the screenplay throws at her, which is to say everything a person will probably be forced to deal with in life put into a period of less than a year at the already shaky age of seventeen. At least it's sincere. No, I take that back. It's a damn good thing it's sincere. Without that virtue, the movie would be an utterly laughable, unintentional mockery of its material. And with that in mind, How to Deal does take on material that borders the line between melodrama and soap opera. Now the difference between those two concepts is something of a gut feeling, and my instinct leans me toward the former. It has a nice feeling of how teenagers act—in the face of distress or in everyday situations ("How does this affect me? Me. Me. Me.")—and the presence of a singer-turned-actress with actual promise.

The seventeen-year-old in question is Halley Martin (Mandy Moore), a sarcastic, cynical girl whose family life gives her many reasons to doubt the existence of love. Her mother Lydia (Allison Janney) is dreading the prospect of living alone after her husband Len (Peter Gallagher), a popular DJ at a local radio station, left her for another, younger woman. Halley's elder sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison) is about to marry, but she and her fiancé are always fighting. Her best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) is head-over-heels for her new boyfriend, but Halley simply doesn't understand why. She doesn't understand why someone would so eagerly put oneself in such a prone position to be hurt. Not that she isn't capable of beginning a relationship that could turn serious. There is Macon Forrester (Trent Ford), an unkempt nerd who's cool in that unkempt nerd kind of way (although his name is still Macon), who remembers her from a class last year and wants to get with her. Tragedy strikes when Scarlett's boyfriend dies suddenly on the soccer field (although he apparently "loved basketball"), and Halley's worldview is simply solidified more.

That's not to say she doesn't have time to hang out a lot with Macon (seriously, Macon?). He's one of those unbelievably cool guys who takes girls out to dusk-to-dawn Star Wars marathons, uses the Jedi mind trick in earnest, and turns his best friend's eulogy into a speech about himself. All right, so Halley's new love interest isn't the most interesting subject in the world, and as played by Trent Ford, he doesn't have much appeal or mystery (The only mystery: where are his parents? Are they so ashamed of their choice in children's names that they spend their lives in solitude? (By the by, I apologize if you or someone you love is named Macon.)). In fact, Macon is probably the movie's most glaring problem. Halley is too smart for him and to fall for his "I'm not a lazy slacker; I'm just different and troubled" routine. Not for an instant do we believe their relationship will go anywhere, and as much as the screenplay champions the pairing, they are destined to part ways after the forced final scene of reconciliation. Screenwriter Neena Beber (working from the books Someone Like You and That Summer by Sarah Dessen) wants this relationship to be a lesson in love for Halley, when in reality, it would serve Halley better as a lesson in childish infatuation.

Apart from the blossoming romance, the movie is more understanding of its subject. The script takes an episodic approach, with each new episode in Halley's story adding another complication or two to her troubles. Halley's father announces his elopement to his new girlfriend on the radio before telling his ex-wife or daughters, making the already rocky relationship even more so. Of course, the new stepmother wants to make herself a part of her stepchildren's lives, especially when Ashley finds her marriage "indefinitely postponed." Director Clare Kilner understands her characters' reactions to these awkward scenarios, which is more often than not frustration. Where that frustration is aimed usually leads to even more complications because of misdirection. Halley takes the passive aggressive route when Lydia displays trepidation about her daughter's relationship with Macon, and it's only amplified when Halley discovers what she sees as hypocrisy from her mother, who sneaks out Friday nights to spend time with her new boyfriend Steve (Dylan Baker, who is entitled to and deserves a choice role very soon).

How to Deal isn't all melodrama, though. There are some humorous, usually subtle observations, like Halley sneaking away to smoke in the bathroom only to set off the smoke detector, and there's her hoot of a pot-smoking grandmother, played by Nina Foch. None of this would work without an actress with whom we can connect, and Mandy Moore plays the role with naturalness and honesty that betray her roots as a pop star. I said in my review of her last movie A Walk to Remember that I wasn't ready to declare her a thespian yet. With this, she's a lot closer.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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