Adapted from the popular teen novels of Sarah Dessen, "How to Deal" is a bland romance that suffers from choppy development, dramatic overload and dearth of personality, dissipating any emotional investment in the story of a girl whose skepticism about love is put to the test by the unexpected appearance of Mr. Right.

Adapted from the popular teen novels of Sarah Dessen, “How to Deal” is a bland romance that suffers from choppy development, dramatic overload and dearth of personality, dissipating any emotional investment in the story of a girl whose skepticism about love is put to the test by the unexpected appearance of Mr. Right. A deceptively focused trailer and an ad campaign built exclusively around thrush-turned-thesp Mandy Moore and nouveau boy babe Trent Ford could lure enough swooning adolescent girls to put heart in the opening, but tepid word of mouth stands to dampen the long-term love affair.

The moderate sleeper success of last year’s “A Walk to Remember” indicated a receptive niche for Moore as the anti-Britney — a wholesome alternative to standard-issue, midriff-baring teenage pop tarts. Her follow-up vehicle makes poor use of the star’s fresh-faced naturalness in a role that might have been played as a brainy misfit by Molly Ringwald in the ’80s but here just seems awkward and ill defined.

Taking its title from the challenge of coping with everything life has to throw at a girl, the story stacks up reasons for high-schooler Halley (Moore) to lose faith in love. However, the fact that there are enough reasons here to keep a teen soap in storylines for two seasons is one of the principal problems of Neena Beber’s script, adapted from Dessen’s novels “Someone Like You” and “That Summer.” Halley is struggling to digest her parents’ divorce and to believe in the sentiment behind the impending marriage of her older sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison) and well-heeled fiance Lewis (Mackenzie Astin). Her mother (Allison Janney) is too preoccupied with wedding concerns to communicate with her, while her father (Peter Gallagher) is indulging his midlife crisis with an annoying younger woman (Laura Catalano). Halley’s happiness that her best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) has found love is crushed when the latter’s boyfriend Michael (John White) dies on the football field of a heart defect.

Into this crowded emotional agenda comes Macon (Ford), a sensitive hunk who keeps pushing for more than friendship as Halley continues to hold back. Life becomes increasingly complicated as Scarlett learns she’s pregnant with Michael’s child, Ashley and Lewis hit speed bumps, and Halley’s mother starts dating a chivalrous stranger (Dylan Baker). But against all odds, Macon persists.

The drama is so cluttered with incident and some of the key characters so inconsistently developed that the central question of will she or won’t she give it up for Macon becomes almost marginal, robbing the audience of any real elation when they inevitably do get together.

The action lurches from one scene to another with jarring shifts in tone, and with pacing that’s far from fluid. Brit director Clare Kilner’s debut “Janice Beard 45 WPM” had a certain goofy eccentricity that to some degree overcame its unevenness, but the wavering here between sober drama and half-hearted comedy seems merely indecisive.

The other key problem is casting. The actors are all appealing but there’s something fundamentally wrong when the romantic leads in a movie look more like family members than the actual clan, who seem unconnected here by physical resemblance, character traits or any tangible familial bond.

The mother-daughter relationship is especially unconvincing and Janney’s character perhaps the most unsatisfyingly drawn, reaching out one minute for warmth and cooling into strict parenting mode the next. Ford and Moore, on the other hand, almost look alike. At one point, she makes fun of the way his hair flops over one eye, which seems bizarre when hers does the same trick. The faint sibling feeling in this pairing underlines the script’s failure to explore more fully the characters’ chemistry.

Set in an unspecified city that remains anonymous thanks to the camera‘s reluctance to pull back, pic has a purely functional look. The mainly uninspired music choices even sell short that standard teenpic saving grace of a catchy soundtrack.

How to Deal

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a Radar Pictures/Golden Mean production. Produced by William Teitler, Erica Huggins. Executive producers, Ted Field, Chris Van Allsburg, Scott Kroopf, David Linde, Toby Emmerich, Michele Weiss. Co-producer, Stephanie Striegel. Directed by Clare Kilner. Screenplay, Neena Beber, based on the novels "Someone Like You" and "That Summer," by Sarah Dessen.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Eric Edwards; editors, Janice Hampton, Shawna Callahan; music, David Kitay; music supervisor, Jon Leshay; production designer, Dan Davis; art director, Andrew M. Stern; set decorator, Cal Loucks; costume designer, Alexandra Welker; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital/DTS), Henry Embry; assistant director, Jeff Authors; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Broadway screening room, New York, July 8, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Halley Martin - Mandy Moore Lydia Martin - Allison Janney Macon Forrester - Trent Ford Scarlett Smith - Alexandra Holden Steve Beckwith - Dylan Baker Grandma Halley - Nina Foch Lewis Warsher - Mackenzie Astin Marion Smith - Connie Ray Ashley Martin - Mary Catherine Garrison Carol Warsher - Sonja Smits Len Martin - Peter Gallagher
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