- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

Mandy Moore isn’t as omnipresent as Britney or as sultry as Christina. The peppy pop singer can act, though, a fact that shines through the otherwise far-fetched “How to Deal.”

The 19-year-old appears genuine and comfortable on screen, even in the film’s contrived moments, of which there are many.

Fresh off her work in last year’s weepy “A Walk to Remember,” Miss Moore stars as a teen turning her back on love.

The teen romance genre isn’t a critical favorite. Yet the film opens with such easy grace, it’s disheartening to watch it slide into a well-worn groove.

Halley (Miss Moore) is like most teenage girls. She wears cute clothes, cherishes her best girlfriend and is, like, totally embarrassed by her parents. But she won’t cotton to falling in love, no matter how hunky the fella may be. She’s seen too many loved ones get burned by Cupid.

Her DJ dad (Peter Gallagher) left home to chase a vapid blonde. Her older sister is about to marry a stick-in-the-mud who makes a Secret Service agent look carefree. Her gal pal Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) is a fluttering fool whenever her new beau is around.

Who can blame Halley for her cynical outlook?

So why does she spend so much time with Macon (Trent Ford), a gently rebellious schoolmate always equipped with a witty rejoinder?

Scarlett, for one, sees the pair’s potential.

“News flash … even Madonna got married,” Scarlett tells her friend to make the case for lasting love.

Halley’s divorced mother (“The West Wing“‘s Allison Janney, a touch of class here) is just as bitter about love, as shown in a sharp scene in which she records a video personal ad as a lark.

But even Mom opens her heart wide enough to let in a new man (Dylan Baker of “Head of State”).

So, eventually, does Halley, though it will take all of Macon’s charm and patience to keep their attraction afloat.

The film’s initial misstep comes in the first reel, when one of the young characters dies suddenly on the high school’s soccer field. It’s a doozy of a plot twist, sending Halley and friends into poorly scripted mourning and a tired gag about inappropriate funeral attire. Rarely do movies stretch so far for so few rewards.

More strained sequences follow, but the film stands on firmer ground whenever Halley and Macon appear together.

Mr. Ford has two main acting tics — a downward stare and a downward stare with an imperious grin. Both are enough to make him deserving of Halley’s attentions, since the role casts the young man as otherwise sensitive, funny and warm.

Yet “Deal” can’t be bothered to nurture the romance. Way too early we’re treated to a montage sequence of them getting to know each other better. Curse screenwriter Neena Beber, working from the teen novels “Someone Like You” and “That Summer” by Sarah Dessen, for leaning on such a hackneyed shortcut.

Hardly more original are the details of Halley’s sister’s wedding, particularly the family’s weed-addled grandmother. Veteran screen actress Nina Foch (1951’s “An American in Paris”) tokes up in two different scenes, the latest spin on having senior actors behave just like today’s teens for cheap laughs.

Director Clare Kilner indulges in a number of similarly stale touches, such as Halley reaching skyward during a cloud burst as if her emotions were ready for baptism. And the film’s pregnancy subplot only adds more suds to an already soapy drama.

“How to Deal” banks on Miss Moore’s freshly scrubbed presence to win us over. Too often, “Deal” exchanges real emotion for after-school special sermonizing on love and its many complications.

It’s tough not to be cynical after watching Miss Moore’s efforts squandered by a hollow script.

**

TITLE: “How to Deal”

RATING: PG-13 (sexual situations, coarse language, alcohol and marijuana use)

CREDITS: Directed by Clare Kilner, screenplay by Neena Beber based on the novels of Sarah Dessen

RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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