“Two by two and side by side/Love's gonna find you, yes it is/You just can't hide,” sings the J. Geils Band. “You'll hear it call/Your heart will fall/Then love will fly/It's gonna soar/I don't care for any Casanova thing/All I can say is/Love stinks (love stinks), love stinks, yeah, yeah.”
How to Deal didn’t employ the services of the J. Geils Band to underscore its temperament. It should have. Halley Martin might be only 16, but she’s seen enough to know that “the quickest way to ruin a relationship is to actually have a relationship with someone.” So she’s not about to make that mistake. “Haven’t you noticed that when the opposite sex gets together someone always gets hurt?” she plaintively asks. “It’s too bad you can’t get a divorce before you get married. That way you could save yourself from that stupid extra step.”
As Halley looks around, she applies her damaged worldview to everything she sees. Her sister is getting married (yeah, like that’s going to last). Her mother is getting divorced (see!). Her best friend, Scarlett, is getting sex (she’s just too in lust to see the hammer falling). And Macon wants her to be much more than just friends (that's just not going to happen). The way Halley figures it, attachments are for ninnies and love is for saps. Life is full of unpleasant twists and turns; our job is to steel ourselves for the bad and prepare for the really, really terrible. I think I smell the fresh breeze of love in the air!
Divorce hurts everyone involved—especially children. How to Deal shows its effect on Halley. The disappointment and disillusionment she feels over her parents split distorts her emotions and her relationships.
When Halley’s sister has her bachelorette party, she comes home with a male stripper’s underwear wrapped around her neck. That sort of intemperance isn’t unusual for Hollywood films. What happens next is. Hubby-to-be finds out about his fiancée’s indiscretions and blows his top. “I thought we agreed not to have strippers,” he fumes. Sure, sure, she mumbles, blaming their appearance on her friends. But lame excuses aren’t going to get her off the hook. “Don’t our promises to each other mean anything?” he laments. When it’s all said and done (at least for that day), the couple breaks up and calls off the wedding, illuminating the damage caused by both sexual indiscretions and broken promises.
Halley eventually learns that just because life inflicts injury doesn’t mean we should stop living. And she learns that just because a couple has a fight doesn’t mean they’re doomed.
A funeral is held at a church, but the minister reads a poem, not Scripture.
Halley walks in on Scarlett having sex. Nothing explicit is shown, just lots of flailing arms and legs as the lascivious pair duck and cover. Then, soon after Scarlett’s high school beau unexpectedly dies of a “heart defect,” she discovers that she is carrying his child. Moviegoers get the vague impression that it’s probably a good thing that he and Scarlett were carrying on physically so that she can now have this baby in remembrance of him.
Spurned by her husband, Halley’s mom spouts off about the deficiencies of middle-aged men who “can’t keep their zippers up” when they see “silicon-breasted bimbos.” Halley and Scarlett discuss sex several times (crude slang is tossed around). A dog makes sexual advances on Halley’s mom’s leg. Halley and Macon make out on a couple of occasions. The first time he partially unbuttons her blouse and slips his hand underneath. The second time he gets it all the way off. Both time they stop short of sex. Elsewhere, it looks like a girl is giving oral sex to a guy, but she claims she is just looking for a lost earring. There’s talk about strippers at Halley’s sister’s bachelorette party. It’s implied that Halley’s mom is having sex with a new boyfriend. Halley sometimes wears tight shorts and revealing tops. A man in a bar slaps a woman’s behind. And there are several kissing scenes.
A car crash injures one of its occupants (after swerving to avoid another vehicle, the car crashes into a tree). Macon and Halley’s dad briefly fight over the microphone at a radio station.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Halley and Macon go to a teen drinking party and have a few beers. Halley finds her sister passed out on the front porch. And her grandmother is apparently addicted to marijuana (she smokes it in the bathroom a couple of times). The filmmakers play Grandma’s pot habit for laughs, implying that she used to inhale for medical reasons, but that now she’s just trying to get high. Halley smokes a cigarette, but gags on it. Champagne, wine and other drinks make frequent appearances.
This is the kind of melodramatic mess we’ve come to expect when teenage pop stars make movies. Obviously 2002’s poignant A Walk to Remember was an anomaly for singer Mandy Moore. How to Deal feels much more like Britney Spears’ debut movie Crossraods. While chock full of teen issues (sex, pregnancy, divorce and death) and angst, it fails to flesh any of them out in a morally pure, or even satisfactorily coherent manner. Many tendrils of Halley’s story are simply left dangling. And the ones that are followed to their end suffer from pat and shallow, sometimes disingenuous, resolutions. Not to mention that the whole “love stinks” thing has been done to death. The second Halley begins berating love, you know she’s going to find it. By the end of the film, expressions of disgust have morphed into volleys of glee. “I didn’t end up falling in love, I crashed into it,” she narrates. And as the credits loom, she and Macon agree, “If love beats us up, we’ll beat it up right back.” Don’t get me wrong. Better to spiral toward positivity than the other way around. But watching it happen onscreen, I just wasn’t buying it.
How to Deal makes quite a point about learning to embrace life’s little messes. And that’s a good thing. Unless, as they do here, those messes include immoral and illegal behavior. Scarlett’s sexual relationship isn’t deemed wrong. In fact it’s portrayed as essential to her having her lover’s baby after he dies. Grandma getting toked up in the bathroom is supposed to be cute and generate chuckles. And Halley’s casual disobedience is just that—casual. Parents prepared to deal with those sorts of issues with their teens may decide to use Miss Moore’s built-in popularity as a launching pad to teach a few overdue life-lessons. But left to its own devices, How to Deal doesn’t cope very well.