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(2003) (Mandy Moore, Trent Ford) (PG-13)

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Drama: A disillusioned teenager tries to resist falling for a classmate for fear of being involved in a relationship she's sure will ultimately fail.
Halley Martin (MANDY MOORE) is a 17-year-old junior in high school who's disillusioned about love and relationships. That isn't exactly surprising considering that her flamboyant deejay dad, Len (PETER GALLAGHER), has just divorced her bitter mom, Lydia (ALLISON JANNEY), so that he can elope with his on-air co-host.

She also sees that her older, high maintenance sister, Ashley (MARY CATHERINE GARRISON), is always fighting with her fiancÚ, Lewis (MACKENZIE ASTIN), and simply can't understand why people feel the need to get together when it appears they'll inevitably break up. It doesn't help that Halley's best friend, Scarlett (ALEXANDRA HOLDEN), has fallen for a guy and is oblivious, at least in Halley's eyes, of the romantic icebergs that loom ahead.

Despite all of that, Halley finds herself attracted to her rebellious and unconventional classmate Macon Forrester (TRENT FORD). Yet, despite his desires, she doesn't want to fall for him. As the year quickly zips along, and as Ashley and Lewis' wedding date approaches, and tragedy and surprise visit her friend, Halley tries to sort out her feelings about the various familial and romantic relationships in her life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
People learn things either through direct experience, or by observing others going through the same. Although it depends on what that might be, sometimes neither sort of experience is enough to predict how one will react to the same or similar situations when they arise in the future.

For 17-year-old Halley Martin, her second-hand experience with relationships - particularly romantic ones - is that they never last and only lead to heartbreak, sadness and/or bitterness. Accordingly, she's built up a wall around her over which no suitors will be able to climb and steal her heart. And for any girl - teenage or not - who's either thought of or actually mounted such a defensive personal structure following a breakup, they'll be able to identify with the protagonist in the coming of age drama, "How to Deal."

In case you were wondering, the title doesn't refer to a manual about heading to Vegas and becoming a card dealer to get over a failed romance. Instead, it's about coping with the various bumps, potholes and roadblocks that life throws one's way as they travel through it.

Based on the novels "Someone Like You" and "That Summer" by Sarah Dessen, the film is one of those odd little hybrid pictures that attempts to mix comedy, melodrama and other material that's supposed to tug at one's heartstrings while also making one laugh. In that sense, it sort of feels a bit like the similarly designed "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" as combined with most any teen angst flick.

The result is an occasionally decent, if uneven and certainly unrealistic and mawkish at times look at relationships of various sorts. As adapted by scribe Neena Beber (TV's "Daria") and directed by Clare Kilner (making her feature debut), the film follows about a year in the life of our disillusioned protagonist as she watches relationships come and go all around here, all while trying to cope with the familial ones she's in and avoid any of the romantic sort.

Obviously aimed at teenage girls who either like pop star turned actress Mandy Moore ("A Walk to Remember," "The Princess Diaries") or can identify with her character's dilemma, the film can't decide whether it wants to be a slightly goofy familial comedy, melodrama or straight romantic drama.

All of which means that it never manages to establish or maintain any sort of successful narrative as it repeatedly alternates between its various modes. Many in the target demographic might not mind any of that and will likely laugh at the goofy material and cry or get worked up by the maudlin moments. Yet, those of us jaded viewers - who've been through similar moments in real life and/or the movies - will likely have a different reaction to the offerings.

I'm far from the target audience, but I wanted to like the film and, at times, did, mostly due to Moore's charismatic performance. Although the material doesn't test her acting abilities, the young actress appears to be one of those who manage to improve upon and/or rise above whatever material with which they're stuck. That's certainly true here.

Just when the film seems ready to settle down into a decent portrayal of family dynamics, young love and/or coming of age quandaries, the filmmakers seemingly can't resist the temptation to mess things up. Whether it's all of the melodrama (a classmate's death, a teen friend's pregnancy, a car crash) or the goofy adults (the flamboyantly caddish father, the flighty but ultimately wise and pot smoking grandmother or the rich and snobbish future in-laws), something always manages to raise its ugly head just when the film starts to turn decent and/or interesting.

Of the adults, only Allison Janney ("The Hours," "Nurse Betty") emerges relatively unscathed, although she must occasionally act in those unrealistic but oddly crowd pleasing ways that only occur in the movies. Peter Gallagher ("Mr. Deeds," "House on Haunted Hill") and Nina Foch ("Executive Sweet," "Hush"), on the other hand, are both wasted in stereotypical and poorly drawn roles (he being the hip but oblivious father, she the friend of "Mary Jane").

On the younger side, Trent Ford ("Slap Her, She's French," "Gosford Park") is decent as the unconventional sort of guy that Halley both wants and tries to avoid, while Alexandra Holden ("The Hot Chick," "Sugar & Spice") is mostly okay as the pregnant friend. Like Janney, however, they must wade through some unbelievable character actions. The one played by Mary Catherine Garrison ("Moonlight Mile"), is the worst, as she's little more than a stereotypical and unrealistic caricature of a bride-to-be.

Obviously designed to appeal to its young target audience that's yet to have experienced enough of life's little surprises to realize that most of what's offered here is pure and manipulative hokum, the film never manages to get around to fulfilling its self-help title. Despite some decent moments and a game attempt by Moore to bring something extra to the material, its artificial, melodramatic and uneven nature ultimately undermines the effort. "How to Deal" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 16, 2003 / Posted July 18, 2003

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