How to Deal would work so much better as a teen film refusing to conform to cookie-cutter ideology if it didn't always seem like it was contradicting what it originally set out to do. Whether this issue was brought on by Sarah Dessen, the author of That Summer and Someone Like You, which the film is based off of or screenwriter Neena Beber is up to debate, but for whatever reason, How to Deal feels like a rebel being proved wrong, foolish, and worthless and I doubt that's how it was originally conceived.
The story revolves around seventeen year old Halley Martin (Mandy Moore), who becomes disillusioned with the concept of love because of how it appears in her own life. Her mother is going through a rocky time after divorcing Halley's dad, a senseless manchild of a radio-jockey and her sister's forthcoming marriage with another man that seems to be made up of nothing but fighting and bickering. So, because of these two things, Halley simply doesn't believe in love anymore and goes on with her life with that mindset.
This, right here, should be the plot of How to Deal, but strangely, Beber (or Dessen, perhaps) decides to throw the film for a loop and have Halley be the subject of a love story with the geeky hunk Macon (Trent Ford). This is where How to Deal seems to be contradicting itself. The film should be revolving around Halley's life rejecting love, perhaps embracing hobbies, becoming more artistic and sociable in her life and at school, or even just being more comfortable around guys with the conflict potentially being rejecting her family and mistaking her family's love for ingenuous behavior if something were to go wrong in her life.
Instead, the film brings up a romance, which feels offputting because it gives the message to young teens who maybe have questions about love the impression that if they think real love doesn't exist they are wrong and foolish because it does. How to Deal plays like "love propaganda," in the sense that its goal appears to be convincing a segment of the population who have rejected romantic notions and the idea that love makes people blind to reality (usually hard-hearted realists or mature pessimists) see the stupidity of their ways and rethink their initial thoughts.
Early on, when the film is still trying to show us that Halley may be on to something with her ideology before pulling a complete three-sixty with the story, we get a glimpse at Halley with her close friend watching Halley's sister argue with her ex. Halley makes my aforementioned statement about love making people blind to reality by showing that, while they fight and argue, they will kiss and make up in a contrived way in just a few minutes. Such a thing unfolds. Right there, the film has just proved Halley's point by saying that love makes people ignore or lessen the bad in life because they are so in awe with the person they are with. However, just a few scenes later, Halley is seen falling for Macon in a way just as contrived as the events we just saw unfold.
Because of this, little additional features about How to Deal can be admired, with the exception of the cast's uniformly solid performances in making their characters at least somewhat believable in their personalities. Not every person in high school is like the cast of American Pie and How to Deal tries (if stumbling in the process) to show this segment in a way that doesn't appear condescending. Mandy Moore seems to be born to play the role of a rebellious teen girl, questioning conventions within society and conformity due to a heavily-praised idea. It isn't her fault that the potential impact of her character is cheapened by a screenplay that has an abrupt change in its message halfway through the film.
Another compliment, as back-handed as it sounds, is that How to Deal is never boring despite what I find to be a glaring inconsistency with its story and message. Many poorly-done romantic comedies become tired early on and very repetitive, but the characters and their actors decide to be upbeat about their roles and all seem committed to the material. Perhaps they saw something I'm missing. This is an entry in the new genre I'll call "love propaganda" and I'm hoping another film won't fall into that category.
Starring: Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, and Trent Ford. Directed by: Clare Kilner.