(PG-13) 2 stars Sitting down in the movie theater with an audience comprised solely of teen and “tween” girls and middle-aged women, and the respective boyfriends of each, I had the distinct suspicion that Ed Johnson-Ott was attempting to bait me into writing a particularly scathing review of How To Deal, which might just as easily have been called Two Weddings, a Funeral, A Totally Cute New Haircut, and a Baby, or even simply Look at Mandy Moore’s Cute New Haircut.
I emerged from the theater some 90 minutes later more frustrated than irate, because like so many movies marketed to teen girls and young women, How To Deal begins with a somewhat interesting heroine who is reigned back into an utterly conventional role by the movie’s end.
Mandy Moore’s character, Halley, is a high school student with a rather charmingly snarky attitude towards love, shaped by her parents’ divorce and her sleazy radio DJ father’s (Peter Gallagher) shotgun remarriage to a woman half his age. “You can’t do anything great in life if you buckle the first time some guy bats his eyes at you,” Halley chastises her boy-crazy best friend Scarlett. “Why do you think they call it falling anyways?”
How To Deal is so ambivalent — almost to the point of being apologetic — about Halley’s cynical attitude towards love that it’s impossible to tell whether she’s supposed to come across as a specimen of third-wave grrrl power feminism, or a spokesperson for the Bush abstinence-only sex ed initiative.
Halley is soon called upon to deal with a number of angst-producing issues, including her mother’s (a decidedly toned-down Allison Janney, for the moms in the audience) new romance with a Civil War re-enactor, Scarlett’s unplanned pregnancy, her older sister Ashley’s wedding to an Alex Keaton-esque yuppie and her burgeoning lust for fellow oddball (yet remarkably high cheekboned) classmate Macon (Trent Ford).
The plot is cobbled together from coming-of-age movie clichés (though its attitude toward Scarlett’s pregnancy is refreshing), with a few mildly interesting scenes, one of which involves a dinner party with the stuck-up future in-laws, enlivened by Halley’s grandmother and her supply of medicinal marijuana. I don’t suppose I’ll ruin the ending if I reveal that it involves a wedding, a dash to the hospital and a long smooch. Halley “learns her lesson in love,” as promised in the trailer, and sort of begrudgingly recants her skepticism about love in favor of Macon’s goofy, tousled charm.
As far as teen romance movies go, How To Deal isn’t too bad — its main offense is that it’s the same kind of hackneyed pap that Hollywood has traded in since its inception, albeit this time dressed up in clothes from the Delia’s catalogue and a pretty decent soundtrack, including the Flaming Lips and Liz Phair. Young women who want to see lively, uncompromising images of themselves on the screen this summer would be better served by Whale Rider or even Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.