High school film ‘The Duff’ doesn’t clique with audiences

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The trend of representing high school political drama through a teenage girl’s perspective began in “Heathers,” a 1988 film that follows a smart and liberated girl and her attempt to annihilate the domination of the most powerful clique on campus. In terms of how Hollywood depicts these sort of cliques, they typically consist of stylish, cold-blooded female students who talk about sex as if it’s from a Teen Vogue article. Enter the occasionally funny yet unexpectedly good “The DUFF” to that growing list of films, which sticks close to the teen tropes.

Directed by Ari Sandel, “The DUFF” manages to be hilarious and relatable — at least, enough to be considered enjoyable by teens who are still waiting for their “so-called lives” to take shape. Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, and titled after the acronym that has remained in the dark recesses of the interwebs since 2003, the film follows Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman, “Parenthood”), a smart and liberated girl who attempts to annihilate the obviously negative implications of being a DUFF, through — what else? — a total makeover.

Bianca is best friends with Jessica (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), who are both tall and pretty party girls. Whenever they walk around the halls together, the three best friends are bombarded with constant greetings from students and teachers alike, but it’s all about “Jess and Casey.” Bianca can’t seem to notice that others don’t really recognize her presence. Until one doomed party on a school night, Bianca was made aware of her identity as the DUFF — the role she’s been playing all her life with such natural talent — by the school’s regulation hottie and her childhood friend, Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell). This crushing blow sets Bianca on a course of action that will have feminists yelling at the screen.

As soon as Wesley’s character is formally introduced to the plot, it is pretty blatant that a relationship could happen between him and Bianca. This “alternative girl in overalls gets lucky with the hottest jock” theme is just one of the many widely used tropes that the film utilizes to maintain a sense of familiarity while still playing outside the box. There’s also the passively aggressive queen bitch (Bella Thorn), the supportive and empathic teacher (Ken Jeong, “The Hangover”) and a character foil in the form of a mother (the brilliant and underused Allison Janney, “The West Wing”).

The actors portray their respective characters convincingly, despite a rather trite and played out dialogue. Whitman, fresh off the “Parenthood” boat of tears and drama, seems to be having a lot of fun playing her character. Her adorkable chemistry with Amell surely is believable.

Although the film is guilty of falling into banal territory, “The DUFF” does such a pleasing job at walking the tightrope between ingenuity and genre faithfulness that it’s almost impossible to denounce it as a totally bad, second-rate clone of “Mean Girls” or “Easy A.” Screenwriter Josh A. Cagan allows the story to flirt with trappings of predictability, but, to be fair, he sometimes dives straight into them. Yet the narrative still has a few wicked curveballs for audience enjoyment.

It should be noted that the voice-over narration can be a little excessive in terms of relaying information. Moral lessons that can be firmly grasped through the obvious dialogue need not be announced in complete explanation. Really, they don’t.  Herein lies one of “The DUFF”’s main flaws: its floundering attempts at trying to “say something” drown out the potency of the given message (which, let’s face it, is that girls can become pretty with makeovers and that a good boyfriend fixes things).

But it does get some things right. The film is littered with references to the influence of social media to 21st century friendships. Absurd threats such as, “Our friendship is over! I’m unfollowing you on Twitter!” summarize the things that millennials prioritize. “The DUFF” has a lot of oddly charming quirks that make it easy to enjoy, but it’s a shiny facade of a film without much depth. It has a good premise; the execution just plays a little bit safe. Its cult-classic status remains on hold no matter how cute the characters’ #ootd’s are.

 

Contact Majick Tadepa at [email protected].