By Owen Gleiberman
Updated July 17, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

It would be easy, and tempting, to make fun of Mandy Moore. Her first star vehicle, the sleeper hit ”A Walk to Remember” (2002), was a puppy ”Love Story” that combined leukemia, Christianity, stargazing, and James Dean-Natalie Wood ”sensitivity” into a cocktail of sticky teen treacle. It wasn’t a good movie, yet some of the scenes between Moore and Shane West had a surprising tenderness.

How to Deal, Moore’s follow-up, is another you-light-up-my-life romance, and this one too can be as wholesome and eager as a Pat Boone infomercial. In this case, however, the filmmakers have gone easy on the instructional young-adult catastrophes (there’s a pivotal car accident, but no one, I’m pleased to report, ends up in a wheelchair), and Moore, cast as a girl who has to emerge from the shell of her sullen self-pity in order to fall in love, is intensely appealing, with dreamy wide eyes, a ripe smile, and an open yet skeptical manner that brings a spark of defiant life to the most ordinary encounters.

At 17, Halley Martin (Moore) should feel like she has the world at her feet, but her resentment over her parents’ divorce has cut her off from hope. She’s chased, very gently, by a boy at school, and the young actor Trent Ford, hair drooping into his eyes, knows that the best way to play a dreamboat is to look utterly abashed about it. ”How to Deal,” which traces the way that Halley lets down her guard, is too clotted with soapy events (a pregnancy, a wedding, assorted parallel courtships) to summon the artistry of a movie like David Gordon Green’s similarly themed ”All the Real Girls.” Yet Moore makes Halley’s awakening organic and touching. In an age when most teenagers are up to their eyeballs in postmodern consumer glitz, her movies seem radical not just in their retro squareness but in their unfashionable embrace of faith over ironic flippancy.