Dealing with it

The new Mandy Moore vehicle isn't a great movie, but its honesty about teen sexuality is good enough to frighten some adults.

By Charles Taylor
Published July 23, 2003 7:12PM (EDT)

Apart from being one of only two or three enjoyable Hollywood movies released this summer, the new Mandy Moore vehicle "How to Deal" is unusually savvy and honest about teenage girls' sexuality.

It's a sweet and entertaining bad movie with flashes of the much better movie it could have been. It wants to talk honestly to the teen girls in the audience and to fulfill their melodramatic romantic fantasies; inevitably it winds up selling both intentions short. But the movies that are socially significant, the ones that best reflect contemporary attitudes ("Rebel Without a Cause" comes to mind), are rarely "good" movies. And to give "How to Deal" its due, you have to place it in its cultural context.

A few days before "How to Deal" opened I was at a promotional screening for a big summer blockbuster and overheard a couple of TV critics deploring the fact that "How to Deal," which features teen pregnancy and sexual experimentation (and swearing and smoking!) got a PG-13 rating. A few days later, one of those critics, Joel Siegel, went on "Good Morning America" to warn parents not to take their daughters who are Mandy Moore fans to see the movie.

Do these people even hear how they sound? We all acknowledge the bad old days when women and servants were not taught to read for fear that, being intellectually inferior to their betters, they would be susceptible to dangerous ideas. (Though, as Jacqueline Susann once pointed out, plenty of girls "went bad" with no help from spicy books, just Uncle Clem and the hayloft.) Implicit in any argument about movies or books that may be dangerous is the assumption on the part of those making the argument that they are superior to those they are protecting.

It's easier to make that argument when you are saying that the young audience for some potential work doesn't yet have the experience to deal with it (and yeah, there are some things kids shouldn't see). But when you make that argument about a movie that deals openly with things its potential audience is already dealing with, or may be dealing with in a few years, the impulse to protect teenagers looks awfully like the determination to keep them ignorant.

In the New York Times, A.O. Scott swept the argument away in the few lines at the end of his piece devoted to informing parents of the movie's suitability. He wrote " 'How to Deal' is rated PG-13. Teenagers have sex. Old ladies smoke pot. Deal with it."

But many Americans can't deal with it. America is willfully naive and hopelessly hypocritical about teen sexuality. We bemoan teen pregnancy rates and pretend to be worried about the threat of AIDS and then do everything we can to keep teenagers from getting sexual information or access to contraception and abortion. Trashing the already tenuous separation between church and state, we allow the religious right and other social conservatives to promote abstinence programs in schools. The abstinence advocates ignore the fact that teenagers will have sex, in hopes of instituting some Christian summer camp utopia where, instead, teens will hold hands at the malt shoppe.

The result is predictable. When you tell kids that condoms are no guarantee against AIDS -- instead of telling them that condoms are their best defense against AIDS if they are sexually active -- you are tacitly telling teenagers that there's no point in using condoms. We don't tell kids who take driver's education that the only guarantee of not being killed in a car accident is to never get into a car; we give them information that will increase their chances of being safe.

Every few years there are headlines about some case where, because of their religious beliefs, people withhold medical aid from sick children. These cases are attended by all the usual tsk-tsking. But no one has made the connection between that sort of religious extremism and the attempts, on moral grounds, to prevent teenagers from getting sexual information and reproductive services. The intention and the effect are the same -- they are both faith-based initiatives that could easily result in someone's death. I know, people cannot choose whether or not they get sick and they can choose whether or not to have sex. The fact is that teenagers are having sex, and denying reality should never be the basis of public policy. If people want to act like yahoos when it comes to their own health, that's their constitutional right. They should not have the authority to make those decisions for others.

The plot of "How to Deal" includes pregnancy, early death, a car crash, divorce and adolescent sexual exploration. As Scott astutely pointed out, the movie is a reminder that "melodrama is the natural mode of adolescence." Which is why the plot contrivances feel less like calculations than an attempt to keep faith with its audience.

Mandy Moore plays 16-year-old Halley, a kid whose spiky hair and spiky attitude might seem like a suburban watering down of punk but is really a sign of keeping the punk flame burning. Halley looks around her and sees that love and marriage lead to heartache. Her mother (Allison Janney) is divorced from her arrested-adolescent father (Peter Gallagher), a rock 'n' roll disc jockey who is getting remarried to his radio station's traffic bimbo. Her sister (Mary Catherine Garrison) is engaged to an uptight preppy who hasn't cut the apron strings to his even more uptight mother. Her best friend Scarlett (the wonderful Alexandra Holden) is in love with the school's soccer star. And even that blissful example of romance turns into a warning sign for Halley when the young man unexpectedly drops dead on the playing field, leaving Scarlett pregnant.

Love, Halley reckons, leaves you alone and she doesn't want any part of it. Of course, when a slacker dreamboat (Macon Forrester, played by Trent Ford, whose hanging forelock gives more of a performance than he does) slouches into her path, she begins to feel the pull of everything she's resisted.

Since this is a conventional mainstream Hollywood movie aimed at the teen market, all problems are resolved by the end. Halley's Prince Spicoli learns to be a good boyfriend (though by any reasonable measure, this guy is bad boyfriend material), her brother-in-law to be stands up to his domineering mom, and Scarlett's baby is born into what promises to be a caring, supportive community. Even Halley's embittered mom finds love with a soft-drink delivery guy who reenacts Civil War battles in his spare time (Dylan Baker gives the character enough goofy charm to make you believe he and Janney are a good match).

It's the complications along the way -- and Moore's instinctive, determinedly uningratiating performance -- that makes the movie interesting. One of the reviews in a New York daily said "Parents may not be as charmed as their kids by the portrayal of teen pregnancy as a cause for community rejoicing." But that refers only to the final shot of the movie. The body of the picture is considerably more complicated.

"How to Deal" has been made by people who heard the phrase "a woman's right to choose" and took it seriously. Because those words have been used (by necessity) in defense of abortion rights, "a woman's right to choose" has come to mean a woman's right to choose an abortion. In other words, it's the opposite of a real choice, pointing to a conclusion as predetermined as the one preached by the anti-choice crowd. "How to Deal" puts that contradiction right on the screen in the scene where Scarlett informs her mother that she's pregnant and her mother's response is, "Thank God you told me in time." It's a startling moment because it puts a view that denies choice -- she never asks Scarlett what she wants to do -- in the mouth of someone who doesn't oppose abortion. The scene runs the risk of being misread as pro-life in the same simplistic way that "Papa Don't Preach" was misread. But Scarlett's decision to have her baby is in a line of descent from the voice of childish petulance Madonna adopted in that song.

It's probably the wrong idea; it probably would be smarter if she chose to have an abortion or put the kid up for adoption. But it wouldn't be realistic to the film's attempt to present the swirl of melodrama that teenagers live in. In that context, a teenage girl whose boyfriend tragically drops dead is going to keep his child. It's significant that Scarlett's choice has nothing to do with peer pressure or parental pressure, that it doesn't stem from any belief that abortion is a sin. And it doesn't buy into the notion that, for a teenage girl, a baby is a status symbol.

"How to Deal" consistently stands up for a teenage girl's right to make choices about her own sexuality, even if they're the wrong choices. When Halley's mom finds Halley and her sweetie making out on the couch, she reacts as even the most levelheaded parents do and freaks out, asking Halley if this is how she behaves in her own house? Halley turns the tables on her by noting that if it's her house then she has some say in how she behaves in it.

Back to the N.Y. Daily News review: "[Parents] can take heart in [the movie's] effort to equate love with sex, but then it makes no effort to distinguish between love and infatuation." Think that through -- most teenagers don't have the experience to distinguish between love and infatuation. So isn't it risky to teach them to equate sex and love?

Moore's performance demonstrates a sensibility that many parents might find threatening. Halley makes the distinction between sex and love. When her mother berates her for making out, she refuses to be shamed or made to feel cheap. She doesn't resort to adolescent overdramatization and claim she's in love. She's attracted to this guy, she's acting on her sexual urges, and she won't apologize for that. It's a measure of the movie's integrity that later, when Halley does get the chance to go all the way with her boyfriend, she can't go through with it. The integrity of the moment isn't from the imposition of some false morality that holds that sex before marriage is wrong. It comes from how the movie acknowledges the way Halley is torn between her body and her brain, wanting sex but with the examples of too many lousy relationships dancing in her head.

Learning the distinction between sex and love is a necessary part of a kid's moral upbringing. But it also invites the possibility that they may learn to recognize their sexual feelings for what they are and act on them without fooling themselves into thinking they're in love. The movie's sexual scenes are both sweet and thrilling. They return you to the excitement of teenage sexuality, of the first touch of skin against skin, of the "Is this happening?" intensity of unbuckling your honey's pants (or having your own unbuckled).

"How to Deal" doesn't demonize parents who are dealing with their kids' sexuality. Janney isn't presented as an ogre for grounding Halley after she walks in on her makeout session, and the disapproval Scarlett's mom shows for her daughter's decision to have her baby clearly comes out of wanting the best for her. But for all its melodrama the movie recognizes a real world where kids do have sex and thus it implicitly criticizes any attempt to deny that; it implicitly says that withholding information can do a lot more harm than providing it.

What may be most threatening to some parents about "How to Deal" is that it presents a world where kids function on their own. That's an extension of the movie's view of suburbia as a place that, because it's considered safe, allows kids the freedom to come and go as they please. Best friends are in and out of each other's houses, and it's easy to slip out at night to meet someone. When Scarlett suspects she's pregnant she and Halley process the information on their own, consulting "Our Bodies, Our Selves" and then buying home pregnancy-testing kits. This is the suburbia I knew, where friends' bedrooms become refuges for exchanging information and gossip, where it's easy to tell your parents you're doing one thing and then do another, where friends with cars open up even more avenues of freedom, where kids have formed a support system to look out for one another, especially when it comes to those things they feel they can't tell their parents. The movie doesn't confuse this with adulthood but it suggests that it's a dry run for being a grown-up.

The thing that holds the movie together through its compromises and contrivances is Mandy Moore. She's an untrained actress and so far a limited one. She may be better at reacting than acting. But she's alive on the screen with an instinctiveness that may be great raw material for a director who loves actors. For a pop idol with a somewhat saccharine image, Moore is exceedingly adept at sarcasm, at giving a line just enough of an edge for Halley to maintain her self-respect. In the scene where Halley has dinner with her father, Moore plays with her plate of spaghetti in a way that defines adolescent boredom. And when her dad's fiancée intrudes herself on the dinner, the Pepsodent smile Moore flashes is the sweetest "fuck you" you've ever seen. It's so blatantly insincere that you'd have to have a heart of stone not to smile back at it. Moore is adorable all right, but in this performance she's not cuddly. Her Halley suggests the sort of girl who is waiting out adolescence, waiting for the time not too far off when her brains and independence won't mark her as a smart-alecky kid. Moore gets us on her side from the beginning and we're never tempted to switch our loyalties.

It's not simplistic to conclude that part of the gutsiness of "How to Deal" comes from the fact that the director, Clare Kilner, and the screenwriter, Neena Beber, are women and that the movie is based on two young-adult novels by another woman, Sarah Dessen. That's not to say that men can't make teen movies sensitive to teenage girls. Most critics were too hung up on the premise of "American Pie" -- four friends make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night -- to note that the boys were continually made the butt of the joke and the sexual experiences of the girls were taken seriously.

But like Amy Heckerling's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and Martha Coolidge's "Valley Girl," "How to Deal" shows a woman's sensibility in its determination to respect the brains and capabilities of its female characters. And if you accept that, on the surface at least, society has only grown more openly sexual since the early '80s when Heckerling's and Coolidge's movies appeared, then you have to note that, unlike the girls in those pictures, the girls in "How to Deal" don't get dumped on or used. They're more in control of themselves, operating with more access to sexual information and less societal pretense that teenagers aren't sexual. And that is not a portrait likely to please people who deplore the sexualization of society.

Like other Hollywood product, teen movies are commercial ventures marketed to a predetermined audience. So it's tough to pin down why, in the last few years, teen movies feel fresher, less calculated than their adult counterparts. It may be as my Salon colleague Stephanie Zacharek suggested in a piece in Sight and Sound that the smaller budgets of teen movies give filmmakers at least some margin of freedom from aggressive studio oversight.

My gut instinct tells me that in attempting to honor the idealism and romanticism of teenagers the movies have less patience for cynicism and distancing irony. Unlike all the other summer movies (with the exception of "The Italian Job" and "Pirates of the Caribbean") "How to Deal" feels like it was made for people and isn't just an item on a studio's balance sheet. Attending an opening day matinee in a theater of teenagers there to see Mandy Moore made me feel like a member of an audience instead of making me feel like a pickpocket's mark the way I do at blockbusters.

For everything that's wrong with it, "How to Deal" has some very considerable things going for it. In the midst of the junk around it, it's refreshingly human-size. In the midst of our national hypocrisy about teens and sex, it's a small island of sanity.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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