How to Deal (PG-13)
New Line Cinema
This teen first-love story is clumsy and scattershot at times, but is smart and funny throughout and is a respectable entry into the teen sex genre. A refreshing departure from the sophomoric penis-for-brain humor of American Pie, How to Deal comes at the issue of "does she or doesn't she?" from the point of view of a savvy, tough girl named Halley, charmingly played by pop singer-turned movie star Mandy Moore.
Halley is surrounded on all sides by romance or the breakup of romance: Her mother Lydia (Allison Janney) is angry and despairing over her recent breakup with Halley's aging hippie dad Len (Peter Gallagher with a soul patch), while Dad is already planning his marriage to a young, blonde bimbo. Halley's sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison) engaged to Louis, a stuffed shirt from an aristocratic family, can't stop fighting with her fianc long enough to get serious about the upcoming nuptials. And Halley's best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) has fallen in love and experienced sex for the first time with a high-school heartthrob, changing the dynamics of the girls' comfortable lifelong friendship.
Why does love make people crazy, asks smart, levelheaded Halley who vows never to succumb when who should appear but Macon (Trent Ford), a guy who's just weird enough to be interesting and who has definitely got the hots for her.
The movie works out these various subplots with an excess of improbable dramatic twists, but the characters never react excessively. In the course of two hours we see death, teen pregnancy, divorce, a car crash and any number of anguished situations surrounding romantic entanglements, possibly a result of the screenwriter, Neena Beber, stuffing the plots of two teen novels into one screenplay.
Director Clare Kilner draws dynamite performances out of the film's four women characters, especially Janney as a brittle, jilted mother who tries hard not to pass her bitterness on to her daughters. Moore is boyish, bright and natural. And Alexandra Holden makes the most of every scene as Halley's tenderhearted best friend.
Apparently shot on a low budget, How to Deal's production values are relatively low -- the car wreck is amateurishly framed; a newborn baby in the hospital nursery looks like an exceptionally hefty 3-month-old; we are returned again and again to the same background shots to introduce a scene. But the characters' internal lives are rich enough to set off this deficit.
The mother-daughter relationship, in particular, is accurately and lovingly rendered. At one point, Halley shrieks, "She doesn't even think my memories belong to me!" Janney is masterful at playing the parent afraid to relinquish control while maintaining an appropriate level of supervision.
The only off-kilter resolution is between Macon and Halley. He proves to be a doofus and she wisely dumps him at a critical moment. But when he comes back begging, she relents. Ford plays him as an offbeat goof, charming at first, but we can't help feel that she is way too smart for him. By the film's end, I was rooting for her to move on. In spite of her grandmother's warning that first love never really ends, let's hope for Halley's sake this one ends before college.
-- Kathryn Eastburn