'How to Deal': Teen Angst in Spades

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18, 2003

High school has gotten so much harder.

Consider Halley, the central character of "How to Deal": In the course of her junior year alone, she has to grapple with divorce, death, pregnancy, a car crash, wearing a bad bridesmaid's dress, her father's remarriage to a bimbo, her mother's hooking up with a Civil War reenactor, childbirth and first love.

Oh, and a bad fall taken by her pothead grandmother.

Such are the contrivances of "How to Deal," a movie that might have been called "Fast and Furious III" for the force and alacrity with which it hurls its ever-multiplying plot devices. Just when you think Halley, played by the spunky, apple-cheeked singer-actress Mandy Moore, can settle into studying for her PSATs -- bam! -- here comes another reason for her to stomp up to her room, punch a pillow and bemoan the weirdness of her life. Based on the popular teenage novels by Sarah Dessen, "How to Deal" is the anti-"Gidget," a 21st-century lament of the modern-day good girl whose virtue remains intact, if messily.

Moore is good at playing the complicated Halley, whose wholesome outlook on life and love is destroyed by her parents' split. A newly minted cynic whose sartorial taste runs to 1970s-era thrift shop finds and black Chuck Taylors, Halley rolls her eyes at her sister's upcoming nuptials and her own best friend's passionate high school courtship; when the latter ends with an unexpected tragedy -- and an unexpected new life -- it only reinforces Halley's bitter certainty that love is for losers.

The young man who is destined to adjust that worldview -- a quiet hipster with an unruly forelock named Macon (Trent Ford) -- arrives as a knight, not in shining armor but in a sarcastic T-shirt. Together, Macon and Halley try to figure out if love -- or, not to put too fine a point on it, sex -- always has to ruin a perfect friendship.

"How to Deal" is yet another soundtrack-driven, disposable, not entirely objectionable teen movie that tries to address realistically the pressures faced by high school students (even if its otherwise worldly characters seem woefully uninformed about birth control). Most of its characterizations are straight out of Central Casting, especially Halley's fatty-toking grandmother whose signature line is "Wow, do I have the munchies!" The bright spot in an otherwise generic production is Allison Janney as Halley's mother, whose own journey back into singlehood is marked with both cynicism and hope. (Her anti-male soliloquy at the beginning of the movie is a tour de force of brilliantly modulated rage.)

Then there's the smart, grumpy, petulant Halley, whom Moore plays with an almost continuous scowl (Halley and Macon's courtship ritual seems to consist primarily of them glowering at each other from beneath angry haircuts).

Dessen and the filmmakers obviously want to rectify the false, idealized vision of teenage girls that has long dominated popular culture. Clearly they intend to address sex more realistically. But is it necessarily realistic to treat teenage sex as a given, and never to show a character talking about or using protection from pregnancy or diseases? Teenage viewers may well be entertained watching Halley cope with her Worst of All Possible Years, but parents may be disturbed in equal measure at how many assumptions this otherwise bright and self-directed young woman accepts without batting a jaundiced eye.

How to Deal (101 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company