Wanna hear a secret?
I have a crush on Mandy Moore. And who wouldn't? Her latest vehicle is How To Deal, a sweet, derivative teen thingee that tells the story of every teenager's life, or at least what they imagine their lives to be. These are lives loaded with endless crises and kisses, and while it doesn't end at the prom, that's because everything else is crammed into a 90-minute plot.
That said, did I mention Mandy can do no wrong? You doubt me? Well, as Mandy might say: You don't even know me! You don't understand! My parents don't understand! I wish I was never born! (Sound of journalist slamming door to office.)
Mandy is the more chaste Britney and Christina - but not that chaste. She has a pert little nose and a raven hairdo that flies away and an insolent teenage air - but not that insolent. She looks cute strapping on a leaf blower or eating a Cornish hen. She seems the embodiment of a Judy Blume heroine, and she has what her background as a bumble gum princess betrays:
Staying power as an actress.
How to Deal is adapted from two teen novels by Sarah Dessen. It's well-acted and charming. But How to Deal is also not exactly what you call fresh material. All those complications just pad out a story that asks whether Mandy can learn to love and forgive. (And duh if you're still wondering.)
However more moderately ambitious than the average teen melodrama it is, frankly I doubt its audience would want anything too new, too believable. At the screening, four girls behind me had a sliding scale for the characters. They couldn't act movie-ish, but when Mandy and co. were random, when Mandy's boyfriend abandons her at a hospital, they whined, “Now who would do that?”
These people would. Remember: The only normal people are the ones you don't know very well. A messier film would be an indie film; and moments between Mandy and her mom suggest a more bracing movie itching to break through.
Mom is played with unusual intelligence by The West Wing's Allison Janney. Her arguments with daughter Halley (Moore) feel like real arguments between family: A conversation starts well, then a word is dropped, and doors wind up slamming. Mom is divorced and bitter. Radio DJ Dad (Peter Gallagher) is about to marry his traffic reporter. Halley's sister gets engaged, then calls it off. Halley's best friend falls in love. Then that love drops dead. Then the friend discovers she's pregnant. All this preoccupation leaves Halley lonely until Macon (Trent Ford) enters the picture; but Halley doesn't believe in love. She wants to be friends. Macon says, “Don't make it so complicated!”
Then his car hits a tree.
A little refocusing and How to Deal might have been a parody of an ABC Afterschool Special - with Mandy as the accident-prone offspring of Mr. Magoo, perhaps - but I liked the film's compassion, and its unwillingness to create villains. It's generous with characters who might have easily been written cynically. Cynicism is too easy, the movie seems to say, and people are too complicated. It's almost a mistake to stick these characters and their big-hearted spirit in a plot this silly: You start praying Mandy could rise and lead her people to the shores of a less congested film.