Film Reviews: Wednesday, July 16, 2003
How to Deal
Starring Mandy Moore and Trent Ford. Directed by Clare Kilner. Written by Neena Beber, based on Sarah Dessen’s novels. Rated PG-13.
A Year in the Life

Mandy Moore’s star dims in the listless, overdone How to Deal.


How to Deal is based on two novels by Sarah Dessen, That Summer and Someone Like You. The movie’s title is snappier and more contemporary than either of the book titles, which are rather forgettable. Unfortunately, that’s the biggest improvement the filmmakers have made on their source material.

Why adapt two books anyway? It’s true that Dessen’s slim, eminently readable novels are written from essentially the same point of view, that of an upstanding, observant, middle-class, middle-American teen-age girl. Either novel, though, contains enough plot for a perfectly good film on its own. This movie smashes the books together rather haphazardly, cramming several years’ worth of drama into one year in the life of high-school student Halley Morton (Mandy Moore). Her radio DJ dad (Peter Gallagher) has just ditched her mom (Allison Janney) for a younger woman. Her older sister (Connie Ray) is marrying into a rich, conservative family. Her best friend (Alexandra Holden) falls in love with a guy at school, and then discovers after his sudden death that she’s carrying his baby. Halley herself, meanwhile, starts succumbing to the charms of one of the school’s troublemakers (the almost absurdly good-looking Trent Ford).

The movie shows the strain of accommodating all these plotlines. Some of these characters drop out of sight for long stretches, while others are barely there to begin with — Dylan Baker shows up wearing a Civil War uniform but has so little screen time thereafter that you wonder why the filmmakers went to the trouble of casting this high-powered actor. The abundance of storylines should make the movie feel overstuffed, yet it feels empty instead. British director Clare Kilner handles the material with intelligence, does a good job of picking songs for the soundtrack, and creates some striking visuals (like the overhead shot of a crowd coming out of a funeral into a downpour and using fliers with the dead boy’s face as umbrellas), but she has little sense of pace or timing. A movie that runs only 95 minutes shouldn’t feel this long.

A proper movie star might have held this thing together, as Halley is in practically every scene. Alas, pop singer Moore’s acting doesn’t stand up to this kind of exposure. She spends much of the film looking somewhat irritated, as if someone had borrowed something from her closet without asking, and she uses the same expression to convey confusion, disapproval, frustration, emotional pain, and physical pain. Couple this with the fact that she can’t play comedy and we’ve got a screen presence without much charisma. She does have a nice smile and could conceivably develop into a serviceable supporting actress, but the role here really needed Zooey Deschanel.

Ah, Zooey. She starred in David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls, which covered the same territory as this movie and did so with much more wit and lyricism and an unflinching honesty. There’s no intrinsic reason why this low-budget Hollywood movie couldn’t have achieved something comparable. Instead, the movie winds up like Moore’s Halley — basically polite and dramatically inert.

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