Film Review – The DUFF
At age 46, I’m still a big fan of the teenage comedy. I hated being in high school in the 1980s. Sure, John Hughes made it look cool, but really it was a hell on earth full of big hair, Reaganomics, and horrible clothes. Plus, you know, it was high school. I think I enjoy teen comedies because they seem like an idealized version of those years: the underdog can win, different social groups can mingle, and that hot guy or girl is never really out of reach. None of that was my experience. I was a punk rock weirdo with an older boyfriend and an androgynous look; I was pretty much called a fag everyday when I was a senior. No wonder I like to relive those years through alternate narratives. Anyway, I love them. At the top of my list: Sixteen Candles, Angus, Clueless, Bring it On, and Easy A. (I understand there is A LOT of stuff in Sixteen Candles that is considered problematic today. It is an artifact from another time and should be viewed critically, but can still be enjoyed.) The new teen comedy The DUFF, directed Ari Sandel, isn’t quite up to the standards set by earlier films (although it refers directly to many of them) but is still very funny and worth a view.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) has it good. She’s smart, funny, into cult horror movies, has two awesome best friends, and just needs a little help in the dating department. She’s in love with the sensitive Toby (Nick Eversman), but can’t convince herself to actually talk to him. It’s not until lifetime frenemy/next door neighbor/captain of the football team Wes (Robbie Amell) mentions in casual conversation that Bianca is a DUFF (designated ugly fat friend) that she realizes that all may not be what it seems. After a bit of self-examination, she begins to believe that her best friends Jess and Casey are only using her to make themselves look better, and she decides she no longer wants to be “the approachable one.” She breaks up with her friends and offers to help Wes with his science class if he will help her become more datable. (Um, “science” class? I’m pretty sure high school science classes have names like “chemistry” etc. Whatever.) Wes agrees and thus lessons get learned, revelations get revealed, and stirring speeches are made.
This is all extremely by the book, but the film stands out because it’s very funny. Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell have great chemistry and are very believable as bickering childhood friends who have moved on to different things. The humor is a little raunchy and more than a little slapsticky, but it hits the spot, especially when teacher Ken Jeong and principal Romany Malco are on screen. (The film is not as whitewashed as some, but it could have used a little more diversity in the student body, as well as some less-than-glamorously beautiful people in it. My husband was confused about the title of this movie since Mae Whitman is neither ugly nor fat. But I’m nitpicking.) One of the things I liked best is there is very little makeover in this makeover movie. Bianca gets a better bra and starts tying her flannel around the waist of her overalls instead of wearing it to cover everything up. While she does end up with a few dresses, her makeover seems to mostly consist of becoming comfortable with who she is, not what she’s wearing. For the most part, the lack of originality plot-wise isn’t a real problem because there is enough fun here to overcome the fact we know where it’s going long before we get there.
So what keeps this film from the highest echelons of teen movie greatness? Well, a certain amount of preachiness at the end isn’t doing it any favors. Not only does Bianca give a rousing speech at the end, there is some narration later that spells it out for us in case we didn’t get the message. Teens aren’t dumb; they get it. The beginning of the film references The Breakfast Club, and this may have been an attempt to circle back to that, but it didn’t work. Also, the villain Madison (Bella Thorne) is too one-dimensional. She is so paper-thin there is never any chance Bianca will cave in to her bullying. I also have issues with cutting Bianca off from her two girlfriends because it put all the emphasis on the men in her life, and that’s kind of boring. I felt she could have maintained her strong lady ties and still gone to Wes for help. Also, my daughter would like the writers of this film to know that she is tired of seeing incompetent parents on screen. It’s been done. Mix it up a little. For all that’s wrong with it though, The DUFF hits more than it misses. It’s just goofy fun, and there really isn’t enough of that in the world.