Dir: Clare Kilner. US. 2003. 101mins.

The first of three films due this year from 19-year-old US singer-actress Mandy Moore, How To Deal touches on some of the thornier issues of adolescence and family life but eventually resolves itself into a disappointingly insipid teen romance. To match the $41m grossed in the US last year by the fledgling star's A Walk To Remember, domestic distributor New Line will need to make the most of Moore's female teen fan base when the film opens in the US on Friday: the upcoming release of the singer's new album and the popularity of the Sarah Dessen novels on which the film is based should both. Likewise, independent distributors overseas that have licensed the film from Universal's Focus Features will have to rely on the singer's international popularity - she is well known in Asia and Australia - to drive box office and video sales.

Material for the script comes from Dessen's teen novels Someone Like You and That Summer, with theatre and TV writer Neena Beber (Clarissa Explains It All and MTV's Daria) adapting under a new (and perhaps, to some parents, misleading) title.

Moore's Halley is a bright 17-year-old student whose feelings about love have been soured by her parents' divorce and the unhappiness of her embittered mother (Janney, from The Hours and TV's The West Wing). Trying to cope with changes around her - her big sister's impending marriage, her father's re-marriage to a younger woman and her best friend's budding romance - Halley meets sexy Macon Forrester (Ford, from Gosford Park) and, gradually and warily, embarks on a romance of her own.

Halley's friends and family provide a lot of characters to cover and at times the story is so packed with incident - besides the two weddings and various romances there's teen sex, teen pregnancy and even teen death - it begins to feel like a daytime TV soap opera. Credit goes to British director Clare Kilner (Janice Beard: 45wpm) for juggling the characters and plot lines and maintaining a balance between drama and understated humour.

The film disappoints, however, by ultimately dodging the issues it raises. Sex and teen parenthood appear fairly early on, promising that this will be a refreshingly realistic portrait of teen and family life. But in the end the film has neither the time nor, apparently, the inclination to give those subjects anything more than a superficial treatment. It settles instead for a cosy climax on Halley's sister's wedding day.

Moore, with a wholesome image as the thinking teen's Britney Spears, is suited to her part and looks believable as a pretty student. But like many singers-turned-actors she tries a little too hard to be likeable, leaving her character feeling bland rather than credible. Ford too has a believable look, but his role does not have enough shading to make it interesting. Janney has some nice moments and gives the film a little added appeal for adults.

The soundtrack includes songs from indie-pop acts including The Flaming Lips and Liz Phair, but Moore fans will be disappointed that the star herself, who performed several numbers for A Walk To Remember, does not contribute here.

Prod co: Radar Pictures
US dist:
New Line Cinema
Intl sales:
Focus International
Exec prods:
Ted Field, Chris Van Allsburg, Scott Kroopf, David Linde, Toby Emmerich, Michele Weiss
William Teitler, Erica Huggins
Neena Beber, based on the novels Someone Like You and That Summer by Sarah Dessen
Cinematography: Eric Edwards
Prod des:
Dan Davis
Janice Hampton, Shawna Callahan
David Kitay
Main cast:
Mandy Moore, Allison Janney, Trent Ford, Alexandra Holden, Dylan Baker, Nina Foch, Mackenzie Astin, Connie Ray, Mary Catherine Garrison, Sonja Smits, Peter Gallagher