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IN SHORT: It doesn't get any better than this... [Rated PG-13 for Sexual Content, Drug Material, Language and some thematic elements. 101 minutes]
No, seriously. We've now watched singer Mandy Moore (click for StarTalk) strut her stuff across the big screen several times and Moore hasn't shown chops. Her acting is emotionally flat as a pancake and, considering part of her thespian duties in How To Deal is to be affected by the events occurring around her, some emotional reaction would surely have been called for. Her character is pissed off at her dad for busting up a loving home which gets in the way of landing her first significant boyfriend all the while seeing her sister's and her best friend's relationships hit metaphorical trees. More below.
First, lest teen girls go running to their email programs, no, we're not the target demo that you are. That brings us to ...
Problem number two: If you haven't read the source material, novels by Sarah Dessen -- and policy on this site has always been that you shouldn't have to -- How to Deal is a frenetic hodge podge which tries to adapt two whole novel's worth of story material into a kidlet friendly hundred or so minutes. That would be a wonderfully distracting thing if the screenplay was any good, but it isn't. All that plot action gets in the way of doing that ol' character development thing that we expect. As y'all know, a little bit of character development goes a long way.
We're also of parenting age and know darn well that any of our mid-teen kids already know the four letter words that dot this film. That being regrettable said, we still wouldn't want our kids sitting for 'em. Their use -- two big ones. We think we caught one more -- is out of place and fit only to attain the PG-13 rating that the film bears. Those aside, there's enough stuff about teen sexuality that the language wasn't necessary to get the rating which, we are told by the kidlets in our family, makes the difference between a "good" movie and one "for babies". Kids closer in age to R territory would adjust what is suitable for babies.
Take a deep breath and we'll try to tell this clearly: Halley Martin (Mandy Moore) is sixteen give or take years old. Her mom (Alison Janney) and dad (Peter Gallagher) have just finalized a divorce -- her soft rockin' DJ dad will marry a much younger traffic reporter Lorna Queen (Laura Catalano) at his station and the new stepmom is taking the "mom" part of the name way too seriously. Older sister Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison) has just popped the news that she will marry Lewis Warsher (Mackenzie Astin), the local rich kid. Best friend Scarlett (Alexandra Holden) has just taken the big sexual step with her steady Michael (John White), star of the high school soccer team. Halley isn't going to make the same mistakes mom made, and she's got her own best male pal, Macon Forrester (Trent Ford) to hang with. Enjoy the stumbles in their relationship -- a blonde pops up out of nowhere and eventually returns to same -- but you can see this one coming a mile away.
There's more drama for Moore, whose character runs a gauntlet of emotions from "Life Sucks" to "Life Sucks Even Worse Than Before" all the way to "Hey I'm Happy But Life Still Sucks". There's so much more jammed in that one prominent TV critic sitting behind us was in stitches, laughing hysterically, every time some other travail got dumped on poor Halley's head.
Offsetting these tales of unwanted pregnancy, death and various marriages and emotional couplings is an underutilized Janney, who gets a disposable love affair all her own. Not that she disposes of him. It's just a useless subplot which isn't exploited as much as one devoted to dad's new wife (and the reasons behind his divorce) are. The actress cast as Lorna is gravely out of place here, though, looking 30-ish when the script strongly implies that she should be in her 20s.
Oh, yeah. For comic relief, grandma (Nina Foch) smokes dope. We've seen it too many times before but will grant that it's probably a hoot to a teen.
Then there's the soundtrack. The one bit of positive-ness in the film, a moment of marital commitment, is underscored by the choice of Cat Stevens' "Wide World," one of the greatest tunes about a ruined love affair ever written. We're not sure that if the choice is supposed to be ironic, since it comes far too late in that particular subplot to fit the tone of its placement in the story. That we're even bothering to mention it is the best indicator of what a dumb choice it was. If someone is getting big bucks to negotiate for rights to songs to match a film's emotional texture and, possibly, generate a profitable soundtrack deal, it sure would be a good thing to listen to the words and read the script rather than cross check against Billboards cross referenced lists of chart positions.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to How to Deal, he would have paid . . .
How to Deal is bad soap opera, period. Femmes in our screening locked on to this story immediately, perhaps reliving that "first love. The one you never forget..." We, being neither femme nor fifteen, were pummeled by the action vs. development problem mentioned above.
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