3 stars (out of 4)
Why, why, why should a smart girl fall in love?
In "How to Deal," Halley Martin (Mandy Moore) can list more than enough reasons why she shouldn't. Her father, stricken by a midlife crisis, just ran off with an abrasive bimbo, and all mom can do is rage against the worthlessness of men. Her princess of an older sister just got engaged, but all she and her fiancé seem well matched for is fighting. Even her best friend Scarlett, a weak-kneed believer, just got her first love snatched away by cruel fate.
With so many convincing arguments -- without so much as a single happy relationship to point to -- why, why, why would a girl with half a brain give love a chance?That is the crux of this "My So-Called Life"-toned tale and, perhaps not coincidentally, the subject of this summer's catchy pop hit, Kelly Clarkson's "Miss Independent," a snide single about a self-sufficient girl who finally surrenders to love. Where once it was a given, the issue of whether modern teenage girls -- and, if you believe "Sex and the City," girls much older -- should spend valuable time on guys is still a topic of current debate.
The guy in question is Macon Forrester (Trent Ford), a sensitive slacker with hair in his eyes, a beat-up Honda and a fondness for using the Jedi mind trick. Whenever he wants something from someone (like a date from Halley), he simply stares and commands the person to give it to him. No wonder Halley is drawn to him after a botched morning with their guidance counselor; this kind of self-confidence can be pretty intoxicating to a girl who feels like she has no control over any of the madness around her.
As we watch her (and her mother's) resistance to guys melt away over the course of the movie, we realize that Macon's looks and idiosyncrasies are not unlike those of Halley's father -- which probably doesn't bode well for this relationship. But the fact that Macon and Halley don't feel like a perfect match seems appropriate. After all, this is a movie whose title promises to show teenage viewers how to cope with the messed-up, grown-up world they are entering, not how to make it perfect -- or even how to make sense of it.
And what a nicely bittersweet job it does of painting the world we are faced with at that raw, torturous age -- when we become painfully aware, as Halley does, that "abnormal is normal." While the lip-glossed Moore is sympathetic as the grouchy but girlish heroine, the adult actors (like Allison Janney as Halley's fork-tongued mother, and Peter Gallagher as her tragically groovy father) are allowed to have all the fun. They show the utter childishness of grown-up behavior while still managing to seem like people we know.
Does this more-thoughtful-than-average film make good on its promise to teach girls how to love? The lonely, fence-sitting smart girls might have to concede that much of "How to Deal" entails not demanding that everything (especially guys) be perfect. But the die-hard smart girls might believe they're being told to lower their standards, especially because the film doesn't really indicate just which imperfections should be forgiven in a relationship, and which ones should be deal-breakers.
Maybe that's being saved for a sequel called "How to Draw the Line."
"How to Deal"
Directed by Clare Kilner; written by Neena Beber, based on the novels "That Summer" and "Someone Like You" by Sarah Dessen; photographed by Eric Edwards; edited by Janice Hampton; music by David Kitay; music supervised by Jon LeShay; production designed by Dan Davis; produced by William Teitler, Erica Huggins. A New Line Cinema release of a Radar Pictures/Golden Mean production; opens Friday, July 18. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: PG-13 (sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements).
Halley Martin -- Mandy Moore
Macon Forrester -- Trent Ford
Lydia Martin -- Allison Janney
Len Martin -- Peter Gallagher
Scarlett Smith -- Alexandra Holden
Grandma Halley -- Nina Foch