How to Deal

Jul 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

If the young adult section of your local bookstore had a self-help shelf, How to Deal is the kind of title you might find there. But, even though this teen romance was adapted from two popular young adult novels (Someone Like You and That Summer by Sarah Dessen), our high school heroine, Halley Martin (pop singer-actress Mandy Moore) innocently summarizes the advice offered in this flick in one line of wide-eyed wisdom: “Things happen and you just have to deal.”

And lots of things happen. Halley sulks, teases, pouts and denounces romance through a divorce, guidance counseling, falling in love, an untimely death, family dysfunction and teen pregnancy (no, not Halley’s — though Moore barely manages to keep her virginal persona intact here). There are emotional and physical traumas, two weddings, a funeral and her clumsy attempt to deal with a roasted squab. But even with all that — or perhaps because of all that — How to Deal slouches through one of the longest hour and 41 minutes I’ve ever spent in a movie theater.

The problem seems to be that neither screenwriter Neena Beber (TV’s animated series “Daria”) nor director Clare Kilner know how to effectively deal with their pastiche of romance, melodrama and comedy.

Beber’s main plot is a love story between romantically skeptical Halley and her slacker, bad-boy love interest, Macon Forrester (Trent Ford looking like a roughhewn and scruffy Leonardo DiCaprio). The main drive of any romance may be that we long for the inevitable coupling of our main characters perhaps as much or even more than they do. They have to be appealing soul mates and the stumbling blocks between them should pique our desire to see them finally together. Baby-faced, teen-magazine cover-girl Moore has natural, peaches-and-cream appeal, though a jury of teen girls is still out on Ford’s heartthrob factor. But Halley and Macon, like the rest of the characters, mostly play on one note — and that note rings hollowly. How to Deal’s romance is as flat as its melodrama: If this flick can’t make me care about a woman’s divorce, a girl’s pregnancy or a boy’s death, why should I care if two kids hook up?

But even as Beber bogs the pace down with yet another subplot, the kids in the cineplex seem to enjoy it. This middle-aged critic doesn’t know, but the not-so-little boys and girls seem to understand How to Deal — and it gets two stars only because their response skewed my grading curve to its benefit. If that rating still seems unfair, kids, you’ll just have to deal.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].