How to Deal (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

What's not to love about Mandy Moore?"

How to Deal

Director: Clare Kilner
Cast: Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, Alexandra Holden, Peter Gallagher, Trent Ford, Dylan Baker, Mackenzie Astin, Mary Catherine Garrison
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-07-18

What's not to love about Mandy Moore? Yes, she's a 19-year-old pop star, but a hugely cute and pleasant one. And yes, she's dating tennis superstar Andy Roddick, but she's also working on a decent movie career, learning to act rather than pretending to produce, and picking slightly offbeat projects rather than easier, made-just-for-her parts.

So far, in addition to releasing two adorable albums (1999's So Real, featuring the breakout single "Candy"; 2000's I Wanna Be With You; and 2001's Mandy Moore), Moore's hosted a few MTV shows, graciously (not easy to do on that network) and made some respectable, teenish movies. In one, The Princess Diaries (2001), she plays against type, a high school diva who made star Anne Hathaway's life miserable (or as miserable as it could be, given that she was a princess). In her first starring vehicle, 2002's A Walk to Remember (based on a "beloved" Nicholas Sparks novel, sort of a sober Love Story for teens), she plays a tragically ill, spiritually rich girl who teaches her beau Shane West to be a better person; she was also, not incidentally, quite good in it.

In Clare Kilner's How to Deal (which might be considered counter-programming for its opening weekend, as it's up against the formidably actionated Bad Boys II), Moore plays Halley Martin. "Sometimes," she says by way of introduction, standing on her head yoga-style, "life is so perfect, isn't it?" Yes, you think, "Right, especially if you're Mandy Moore." And then Halley explains what she means. "It has to be, to make up for all the hard stuff." And she's had lots of that. Though she seems too young to be afraid of commitment, but she's earned her skepticism: her sensible, plainly intelligent mother Lydia (Allison Janney) is only just divorced from her flamboyant radio DJ dad, Len (Peter Gallagher), who left her for his buxom young assistant (she wears oddly out-of-date outfits, made of sunflower-patterned lycra). Her polo-shirted sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison, of the forced grin) is just now engaged to marry the frightfully uptight Lewis (Mackenzie Astin), raised by the black maid Marcel, as his Atlanta-born mother was too busy with pressing social activities.

Add to this tangle of kin issues a heap of life lessons, exceedingly melodramatic: an unexpected death, a high school classmate's pregnancy, a conveniently timed car accident, dad's upcoming wedding, and mom's new boyfriend (a sweet-natured Civil War reenactor, played by Dylan Baker). Not to mention the dullsville "surefire" gag: her grandma (Nina Foch) smokes weed and cracks wise (though it is good to see Foch on screen doing almost anything). Halley's a good sport amid all this turmoil, registering her discomfort not in overt rebellion, but in surly girl behavior: she keeps to herself, stomps around when Ashley acts out, and philosophizes with her best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden): "Why does love make people crazy?" she whines. Well, Scarlett wisely observes, "Even Madonna eventually got married."

This ringing endorsement of faith in true love doesn't convince Halley so well as her encounter with floppy-haired Macon (Trent Ford). He's so charming that she can't resist just a few dates: he adorably throws little stones at her window rather than calling on the phone, participates in a leaf fight, takes her to see the water released at the dam late at night, and accompanies her during tiresome pop-musical courtship montages (laughing, sitting in the park, playful slapping -- the usual). It's not long before she's thinking that their "just friends" (with kissing) arrangement might turn into something else, and she's resisting. Now it's Macon's turn to act surly.

Such routine machinations, scripted by Neena Beber and based on two novels for young adults by Sarah Dessen, detract considerably from the film's more interesting and less ordinary aspects, namely Janney and Moore. (The film goes so far as to include a series of scenes featuring holiday décor -- Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas -- to mark passing time and cement the smalltown "feel.") Though Lydia and Halley engage in some banal confrontations concerning sex (each complains when the other pursues it), they also develop a plausible rhythm, avoiding the usual teen movie pitfall of turning too sugary or too drama-queeny.

Moore continues to evolve as a performer and personality. Speaking on Letterman on 16 July, she extolled the joys of skydiving and titillated her famously titillatable host. She also demonstrated that she's a 19-year-old who is appropriately mature and juvenile at the same time. And that's what she brings to Halley -- layers of experience and mood, a sense of frustration and expectation, generosity and insight.

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