Based on two books, That Summer and Someone Like You by Sarah Dessen, How to Deal is the story of Halley Martin (Mandy Moore), a cynical teen dealing with life, love, parents and life’s little surprises. After her parents’ divorce, Halley finds she is very wary of love. Her sister’s impending marriage is something she can only look upon with disdain. Poor Halley just doesn’t know how to deal with everyone around her, including the Keanu wannabe (think Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) who falls for her.
Mandy Moore is convincingly dysfunctional as a teenager against the world. Disgusted with the eccentric dad (Peter Gallagher) about to be wed again and a distraught mother, Moore plays Halley with giddy displeasure and unhappiness reminiscent of quintessential teenage angst.
Unfortunately, Moore is so believable in her cynicism and self-indulgence that after a while, her angst seems more like childish sulking.
A funeral, a teen pregnancy, a divorce, sex, marriage, love, death… How to Deal attempts to pack so many heavy issues into 101 minutes that it becomes choppy. It would seem that merging different plots and characters from two young adult novels was an ambitious feat for the screenwriters. Many scenes, including a hilarious scene where Halley’s grandmother smokes pot, feel awkward and discontinuous.
The passage of time is also so hard to make out in this film, either moving too slowly or quickly at random, that the empathetic connections we’re supposed to establish with characters become almost impossible to build. Only the strong emotional subplots of the supporting characters reel you in.
Halley’s budding romance is not nearly as captivating as How to Deal would have you think. Advertised primarily as a teen dramatic romance, the film focuses on its subplots more devoutly. West Wing’s Alison Janney threatens to steal the show as the divorced, lonely mom trying to pick up the pieces. Gallagher’s take on a father experiencing a midlife crisis and new marriage is so outrageous, it’s horrific to watch. The limelight really goes to Alexandra Holden’s impassioned portrayal of a teenager dealing with an untimely pregnancy.
The romance between Halley and Macon falters because it is so disingenuous and unsympathetic. It grows over too many obvious music cues meant to play at the heart strings of a susceptible teen audience. Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I…” has become the anthem of Hollywood’s idea of young love. But even the music can’t help a sad little romance between two confused teens — one who seems more intelligent than to be involved by a lanky “badboy” whose name rhymes with bacon. Trent Ford is so tongue-tied (think Jordan Catalano meets Ted) as Macon, I felt personally insulted for articulate teens everywhere.
How to Deal fails to capture the essence of great teen films like Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. Despite its intent to get into the teen psyche, it still feels like a grownup’s view of how teenagers should think and act. It tries desperately to speak to teens and miserably misses. My teen little sister, the target audience, certainly wasn’t swayed by overdone manipulative scenes like (cue the music) Halley and Macon kissing by an industrial waterfall. Despite all its song and dance (Moore and Ford really do dance through the finale), How to Deal takes itself too seriously and loses the audience along the way.
The How to Deal DVD sports feature commentary with Mandy Moore, Alexandra Holden and director Clare Kilner in an intimate girly gab session that feels exclusive. I’m glad the cast and crew enjoyed making a film that wasn’t quite as much fun to watch. Feature profiles on Moore and Ford along with two music videos gear to an MTV audience driven to distraction. The best featurette by far is the detailed documentary, “How to Deal with Y.A. Literature,” a fascinating account on young adult literature through the ages.