I am hardly a fan of high school comedies and I have never watched a high school drama I liked. Let’s lay that flat out there. It may be partly because I hated my high school experience, it may be because I just don’t like the juvenile attempts at unconvincingly acting grown-up (which also happens to be the same reason I hate Chloe Grace Moretz), it might be because I can catch when the obviously adult writer or director is trying really hard to be hip and with the youth of these days, but it’s most probably a combination of all of these factors. Hell, my back-then-in-High School enthusiasm for Buffy the Vampire Slayer is beginning to severely wane (though thankfully Veronica Mars will never die out of my heart).
I am completely willing to accept that, already at the age of 22, I’ve become a bitter old geezer, but the point is high school movies aren’t my bag.
But when it comes to comedies, every once in a while I come across one that I can actually admire in its intelligence and treatment of teenage life without being condescending nor betraying the fact that, nine times out of ten, teenagers are shitheads. I’ve never seen a PERFECT high school comedy (though Election, Clueless and Mean Girls come to mind as the closest the genres have come to a masterpiece), but once in a while an impressive one makes me happy I took a little under two hours to catch it in theaters and this year it is The DUFF.
What is the DUFF, however, as the title begs you to ask. It’s a term used by, as I proclaimed, shitheads to shorthand the idea of the Designated Ugly Fat Friend. While the film tries to cover its ass with the excuse that the DUFF is “the most approachable grounded woman who acts a gatekeeper to his/her hot friends”, not necessarily needing to be ugly or fat, the movie has our central DUFF character played by Mae Whitman, who comes off as neither fat or ugly and everything I just typed down in that previous paragraph makes me hope to hell that term isn’t existent in the current high school atmosphere and that it was an invention of the film itself. I serve kind of two masters in reminding myself of that term within the film, and they are both cruel and sickening in my mind – Either Hollywood still can’t deal with even casting a woman who isn’t skinny when the role asks for it, or they actually think that Mae Whitman’s size or unconventional beauty is worth consideration of being fat or ugly. Fuck the world.
But that’s beside the point of the film, for when such a subject is the focus of the film, it can’t possibly make its morals more apparently altruistic like forsaking physical appearance standards, accepting inner beauty, and being happy with yourself without coming off as immensely reprehensible. And of course, the movie goes many strides out of its way to exonerate itself with a preachy third act, like most other high school flicks, and an attempt to pretend it knows what’s hip with the hip kids these days with their internet thingamajigs, again like most other high school flicks, but these are all faults inherent in the genre itself that the movie is able to carry itself beyond enough to not come off as a chore for me to watch until very late in its plot.
Anyway, the plot continues beyond just Bianca Piper (Whitman) discovering the term and how it applies to her due to her friendship to more attractive girls Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels) and deciding to use her next-door neighbor Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) to craft her out to be more attractive and less DUFF-ish. This unfortunately also causes Bianca to be put under the spiteful target of Madison (Bella Thorne), Wesley’s on-off girlfriend who is all those cartoonish “evil bitch” stereotypes you recall seeing on MTV or whatever, and it doesn’t help matters that while Wesley is helping Bianca so that he can pass his classes, you can literally count the seconds before it’s very obvious Wesley has a crush on Bianca.
And well, from there on, you can imagine where the story goes, like a modern-day Pretty in Pink, or She’s All That, or Not Another Teen Movie, or… oh fuck, this plot has been redone a million times, hasn’t it? Well, the jig’s up. The DUFF is nothing really new. It’s not all that challenging. Hell, it’s actually pretty paint-by-numbers, but that’s all ok and fine because of how the film is written in a manner that acknowledges how the audience probably knows where this is going and lets the characters react appropriately to their revelations without treating it as a surprise to us. So good on that.
The other major factor that kept me into the movie was the cast in general. Ken Jeong, Romany Malco, and Allison Janney obviously give some humorous adult presence, but Whitman and Amell have enough chemistry together that we’re rooting for them most of the way through. Whitman alone though shines all throughout the picture with keeping Bianca’s morose “do I really have to go to school” attitude while injecting energy that is anything but negative within the picture.
There’s a couple of visual flourishes that hit and some that miss, but between a smart and witty script and a set of game performances The DUFF really left me, expecting to walk out hating the friend who suggested the film, with a pretty decent sized smile on my face. Not bad for a February release.