Last year, Mandy Moore starred as a teenager with unwavering faith, despite dying of cancer, in “A Walk to Remember.” She was poised and likable, even when the material got insufferably soapy. Now the pop singer stars as Halley, a teenager of unwavering cynicism, in “How to Deal.” She’s still poised and likable, but this time the material bubbles up to unbelievable heights.
On its surface, director Clare Kilner’s movie looks like a high school romantic comedy similar to “10 Things I Hate About You.” Even its tag line — “A lesson in love for nonbelievers” — cries out that this is a cutesy throwaway.
But the script from Neena Beber, based on two novels by Sarah Dessen, has far weightier aspirations. It’s so packed with teen angst, it’s as if Beber tried to cram an entire season of “My So-Called Life” episodes into a single film.
Halley’s parents divorce. Her sister gets engaged. Her father remarries. One of her classmates dies. Another gets pregnant. Halley is injured in a car crash. Her sister threatens to call off the wedding. Her mother meets someone new.
On and on it goes, and just when you think no other traumatic event could possibly occur, something else does.
The whole point of these tribulations is to show that Halley is reluctant to fall in love, even though everyone around her is doing it — her older sister, Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison); her father, Len (Peter Gallagher); her mother, Lydia (Allison Janney); and her best friend, Scarlett (Alexandra Holden).
But her blossoming friendship with Macon (Trent Ford), an extremely cute, charming slacker, slowly wears down her defenses.
There’s something sweet about their scenes together, especially in the way they look at each other while lying side-by-side on a bed during a New Year’s Eve party.
It’s Moore’s scenes with Janney, though, that give the film warmth and realism. A three-time Emmy winner for her performance as the White House press secretary on “The West Wing,” Janney infuses the film with her usual strength, and the moments she shares with Moore are so honest, they hint at the possibility for something better.
But then a character goes and ruins it by doing something totally unbelievable. Ashley gleefully announces that she’s getting married shortly after her mother announces she’s getting divorced. Halley finds out that her disc jockey father is eloping with the dippy traffic reporter when she hears him announce it during his radio show.
Eventually, the right movie will come along for Moore, who continues to show that compared other actress-singers her age, she’s the real on-screen deal.