Teenagers in Love
It’s kinda like Two Weddings, A Funeral, A Baby, and Some Hospital Visits for Mandy Moore fans, only minus Rowan Atkinson (he was busy with Johnny English) and plus a lot of tedious adolescent angst. God, were we all this annoying in high school? No wonder we drove our parents crazy.
How to deal is by basically ignoring this film unless you’re 16 and still moping and pouting around your high school like Moore’s (A Walk to Remember, The Princess Diaries) Halley Martin and just totally can’t, you know, deal with seeing what the raging beast of lust is doing to everyone you know who used to be sane. But never fear: Halley will find her own “friend, with benefits,” which is perhaps the most cringe-inducing PG-13 paraphrase of “fuck buddy” yet, not that Mandy would do that, she’s pure, you know, even around Trent Ford, who sounds like a modeling agency and looks like the love child of Keanu Reeves and Ashton Kutcher, slouching into the guidance counselor’s office with his floppy hair in his face and a supposedly roguish grin.
It’s okay — you can scream now. I’ll wait.
You’ll love this: Trent Ford — who I guess is all dreamy in that find-out-where-his-locker-is, I-saw-him-in-the-hallway-before-gym, ask-his-friends-if-he-likes-me way — has about one smooth move to use on the ladies, and it’s his “Jedi mind trick,” which allows him to convince Mandy of all sorts of things (though not that she wants to do that with him), and you want to yell out at Mandy that hey, doesn’t she know the Jedi mind trick only works on the weak-minded?
Anyway, Mandy is surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of romance — her divorced parents (Allison Janney: Finding Nemo, The Hours and Peter Gallagher: American Beauty, Bob Roberts), her wedding-obsessed big sister, Ashley (Mary Catherine Garrison: Moonlight Mile), and her best friend, Scarlett (Alexandra Holden), whose tragedy of the heart is unintentionally hilarious in that too-serious, overly melodramatic way of teenagers in love, and also in that way of filmmakers who drop bombshells out of nowhere as matters of plot expedience. Through it all, Mandy keeps reminding us that love is like cafeteria mystery meat and funny hats, which perhaps makes sense if you’re 16, though probably not.
The major issue I’m still trying to deal with, though, is the undercurrent of obsession with Gone with the Wind that runs through How to Deal. There’s “Scarlett” and “Ashley”; there’s Mom’s new boyfriend (Dylan Baker: Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days), who makes his entrance in a Civil War-era military uniform; there’s Trent Ford (Gosford Park), who’s character’s name is, no kidding, Macon. Like the town in Georgia. I guess it could have been worse — he could have been named Atlanta or Sherman or Tara. But still.
Meanwhile, over in Great Britain in the 1930s, almost exactly the same stuff is happening, only here it’s warm and bittersweet and funny and a little bit heartbreaking. It also has the added charm of a story of a girl on the cusp of womanhood that won’t alienate those of us who’ve already passed that threshold. It is — here’s a concept — a tale of growing up that resonates even with grownups.
Cassandra Mortmain is every bit as unconventional as Halley Martin, except Cassie’s oddness and her feeling a bit disconnected from the rest of the world comes not from her adopting trendy Nonconformity(TM), as Halley does, with the wardrobe and the hairdo that the nonconformist high-school clique demands, but from the inside. Cassie is surrounded by dottiness — her father (Bill Nighy: Lawless Heart, Longitude) is a slightly insane genius author who’s been suffering from writer’s block for years; her stepmother (Tara Fitzgerald) is an artiste with a Madwoman of Shallot kind of flair who takes to wandering naked in the rain over the moors; and her sister, Rose (Rose Byrne: Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) fancies herself rather the lady of the manor. Thing is, they’re desperately poor and living in a crumbling medieval keep in the middle of nowhere, both of which rather reduce the opportunities for socializing and husband-hunting even if they’re no impediment at all to writing — Cassie is following in her father’s footsteps — and exploring and generally having a grand old time.
But then along come the rich and handsome American Cotton boys, Simon (Henry Thomas: Gangs of New York, Moby Dick) and Neil (Marc Blucas: View from the Top, Wes Craven Presents: They), who’ve inherited the nearby manor. And there’s the truly lovely Stephen Colley (Henry Cavill: The Count of Monte Cristo), the local lad whom some quite rightly liken to a Greek god and who is desperately in love with Cassie. The prospects for Cassie and Rose alike open up considerably just as Cassie begins to recognize that she and her sister have very different grasp on what love and sex and romance and marriage mean.
The wonderful Romola Garai (Nicholas Nickleby) takes Cassie through a maturing process very like Halley’s, only she — and the film — offer us a far more sophisticated understanding of burgeoning sexuality as more than just bodies and hormones, and of the relationship choices we make affecting all the people around us, not just ourselves. How to Deal fails because it takes the most awful and uncomfortable aspects of being a teenager, and particularly a teenage girl, and does nothing with them but hold them up as dreadful obstacles to be endured and then forgotten. I Capture the Castle succeeds — winningly — because it recognizes that those awful and uncomfortable obstacles help us discover who we really are as people and help shape the adults we will later be.