"How to Deal" is an appealing teen picture that is a little too tidy for a film exploring how messy life can be. Some moments ring true, others seem contrived, but the film is by and large sustained by strong central performances and by its depth. At all times it is anchored by a sense that 17-year-old Halley (Mandy Moore) is discovering the reality of unrelenting change in everyday life.
The film opens in Halley's family home, a warm, old brick house with a big front porch on a leafy street in small-town America. On this particular day, her mother, Lydia (Allison Janney), is experiencing bitter feelings. Her divorce from Halley's father, Len (Peter Gallagher), has just become final when older daughter Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison) announces she is getting married. The timing only makes her mother feel worse.
Halley is enraged over her father, a soft-rock DJ and local celebrity, leaving her mother for the radio station's glamorous blond traffic reporter (Laura Catalano), his junior by 15 or 20 years. Coupled with the fact that Ashley's fiancé (Mackenzie Astin) seems a milquetoast dominated by his rich, snobbish parents, it's no wonder that Halley doubts the existence of true love and guards against emotional vulnerability. This makes it tough on her first serious suitor, Macon (Trent Ford), who may be a lousy student but is in touch with himself in a way well beyond what Halley is able to grasp. He has his work cut out for him.
Halley's growing pains are credible, as are the crises facing her friends and family, and they are illuminated with compassion and humor by director Clare Kilner. However, Neena Beber's script — based on Sarah Dessen's novels "Someone Like You" and "That Summer" — tends to tie up loose ends far too neatly, and its people are never without a well-turned phrase on the tip of the tongue. "How to Deal" works up some genuine emotion offset by occasional humor and creates individuals of a certain degree of complexity, but the film is glazed over with an aura of artificiality.
Even so, the principal actors make a dent in that aura. They include Nina Foch as Halley's elegant, free-spirited grandmother and Alexandra Holden as Halley's best friend, who faces up to unexpected challenges. The beguiling Holden stands out in this middling effort that is still more thoughtful than most teen fare.
'How to Deal'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content, drug material and some thematic elements.
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare except for very young and impressionable children.
Mandy Moore ... Halley Martin
Allison Janney ... Lydia Martin
Trent Ford ... Macon Forrester
Alexandra Holden ... Scarlett Smith
Nina Foch ... Grandma Halley
A New Line Cinema release of a Radar Pictures/Golden Mean production. Director Clare Kilner. Producers William Teitler, Erica Huggins. Executive producers Ted Field, Chris Van Allsburg, Scott Kroopf, David Linde, Toby Emmerich, Michele Weiss. Screenplay by Neena Beber; based on Sarah Dessen's novels "Someone Like You" and "That Summer." Cinematographer Eric Edwards. Editors Janice Hampton, Shawna Callahan. Music David Kitay. Costumes Alexandra Welker. Production designer Dan Davis. Art director Andrew M. Stearn. Set decorator Cal Loucks. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.