How To Deal

on July 18, 2003 by Sheri Linden
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Recording and movie star Mandy Moore ("A Walk to Remember") is the spirited and introspective eye of her family's moderately wacky hurricane in "How to Deal." She's paired with the equally likable Trent Ford ("Gosford Park") for some good clean smoldering, while the technically blah film gets a boost from Allison Janney's pitch-perfect performance as her mom. But, despite its humorous touches, "Deal" overindulges an appealing gentleness to become increasingly cloying.

An alert observer of adult foolishness, 17-year-old Halley is prematurely jaded about romance, even as she falls for cute, slightly boho Macon (Ford). Her mother, newly divorced and still feeling jilted, condemns even an uncooperative Coke machine as a "two-timing son-of-a-bitch." Balancing her comically bitter worldview--because every brooding thought meets its optimistic alter-ego in Neena Beber's script--is Halley's preppy older sister (Mary Catherine Garrison), who's engaged to the equally preppy, inordinately detail-oriented Lewis. Mackenzie Astin breathes life into what might have been a walking cliche, but even so, everybody here, with the exception of Halley and Macon, is a stand-in for a vague lesson about life.

Among them are Nina Foch, funny and lovely as cannabis-smoking Grandma (although the pot joke is pushed past its expiration date), and Peter Gallagher as the girls' sweetly pathetic father, a radio DJ with a Peter Pan complex who, before an audience of fans, jumps around in a red suit for beachside nuptials with his younger girlfriend.

Based on novels by Sarah Dessen, this is a film that purports to be about major crossroads: divorce, marriage, death, birth. The attempted rhythm-of-life storytelling, although always ending on the upbeat, begins to feel like a pile-up of contrived catastrophes under the clumsy direction of Clare Kilner, whose debut was the critically lauded "Janice Beard: 45 wpm." With its flat, bland look and feel, the film offers no hint of d.p. Eric Edwards' expressive work with indie helmers Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. But their films about teens, for better or worse, were more emotionally raw; "Deal" keeps everything under a lid. Starring Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, Trent Ford, Alexandra Holden, Dylan Baker, Nina Foch, Mackenzie Astin, Connie Ray, Mary Catherine Garrison and Peter Gallagher. Directed by Clare Kilner. Written by Neena Beber. Produced by William Teitler and Erica Huggins. A New Line release. Comedy/Drama. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, drug material, language and some thematic elements. Running time: 101 min.

Tags: Starring Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, Trent Ford, Alexandra Holden, Dylan Baker, Nina Foch, Mackenzie Astin, Connie Ray, Mary Catherine Garrison and Peter Gallagher. Directed by Clare Kilner. Written by Neena Beber, Produced by William Teitler, Erica Huggins, New Line, Comedy Drama
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