Since the 80’s there has been a great tradition of high school comedies at the movies. Most of them are on the ‘She’s All That’ forgettable to terrible level but every once in a while they can be great like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Clueless, Mean Girls, Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Juno.
The new teenage comedy The Duff is definitely trying to be like these great movies especially Juno but it just can’t quite get there. It dips far too often in sitcom territory and I found myself wishing an edgier writer like Diablo Cody was at the helm. In fact, it’s practically the same movie as Drives Me Crazy with Melissa Joan Hart from the 90s which is no masterpiece. It’s not terrible and the target demographic will probably enjoy it but it could have been great.
The Duff stars Mae Whitman of Parenthood and Tinker Bell fame as a teen girl who finds out she is the DUFF of her two best friends. In the world of this movie that means the Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
Whitman is Hollywood’s version of ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ and she looks like she is 30 (26 in fact) but so does everyone else in the movie and she is very appealing in the lead. I don’t know if it is quite the star turn of say Emma Stone in Easy A or Ellen Paige in Juno but she is very likable and fun The script is based on a novel by an actual 17 year old which is surprising because it dips into the cliches of a teen sitcom on ABC Family far too often. Scenes like the makeover or the caddy beautiful mean girl have been done to death and are so maudlin here. We even get the big unrealistic high school party you’ve seen in a thousand other movies.
It tries to tackle deeper themes of labels, social media, reality tv, shallowness of communication and even sex in today’s teen culture but it just doesn’t go far enough, and sticks with the obvious and duh types of revelation. As a youtuber I can also say that uploading, editing, adding graphics and promoting a video is not nearly as easy as they make it seem. They keep saying things like ‘make it viral’ and ‘how many hits are we getting?’ when it hasn’t been uploaded. It makes me think the movie doesn’t know as much about social media and movies as it thinks it does. You don’t just throw around keywords and get social commentary. There is also a principal who is an obvious copy of Tim Meadows in Mean Girls. Sigh…Usually in these types of movies the ‘ugly girl’ has a mentor who teaches her how to be cool and win the guy all the while actually making said mentor fall in love with her….Spoiler alert- there is not much different here. It is alarmingly similar to that Taylor Swift music video with the boy next door who see’s all her crazy antics but she’s really in love with him. Actually the Taylor Swift video is more clever because she plays the mean girl and the girl next door…You know your movie has problems if a Taylor Swift video is more original.
But it’s not completely awful. The cast is pretty likable and Whitman and her mentor boy have ok chemistry. I also liked that her pretty friends aren’t actually jerks like she thinks they are. In fact, she kind of dumps her life-long friends pretty quickly which is awkward for our hero. They haven’t done anything wrong and yet she treats them like the mean girl who is posting the mean videos. In fact, her one friend removes the offending videos. It’s kind of strange.
There were just so many times when I could see better movies trying to break free from the script. Like when Whitman was so clearly following the look and rebuttals of Juno but the dialogue wasn’t nearly as sharp with none of the weightier subject matter. They even have Allison Janney playing Whitman’s mother (she is the stepmom in Juno). Janney is great in her few scenes as a divorcee who became a motivational speaker and guru and loves to give advice in cliches. This made me laugh because I also have an aunt who is a motivational speaker/guru.
I kept trying to think about my teen self and if I would have loved this movie. I think I probably would have enjoyed it like Can’t Hardly Wait or Never Been Kissed. I knew they were bad but they had likable performers and I liked them. I’d be curious to know what my 15 year old sister thinks of it when she gets a chance to see it (she’s in Disneyland right now and didn’t answer her phone!).
One interesting thing in The Duff is she gets a pretty embarrassing video of her sent to the whole school. They laugh at her but then she ‘owns it’ and it blows over pretty quickly. I wonder how accurate that is? I mean if someone had done something like that to me in high school I would have been in extensive therapy but I wonder if everyone has an embarrassing video or photo these days so it is increasingly less of a big deal? I have no idea but I was surprised how light the movie treated something that to me seemed like it should be extremely devastating. Different world since I went to high school back in 1995-1998!
Like I said, it’s not a terrible movie, just kind of forgettable and average. I wasn’t miserable watching it. The performances are fine and it has a nice message about putting out the best version of yourself and ‘owning it’. The music wasn’t very unique or special for this kind of movie which usually have a soundtrack as part of its character and personality (think Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller, Clueless). Whitman actually reminds me a lot of a smarter Britney Murphy and she’s likable. Hopefully she can finally get out of playing a teen.
It’s target demographic will probably enjoy it but I don’t think it’s the kind of teen movie that will become a classic. It’s just too sitcomy and ordinary for that.
I know I have some teen readers- what did you think of The Duff? I’d love to hear.
For us old fogies what teen movies did you like and do you still enjoy it?
As far as content there is some profanity, a scene in a male locker room but it is pretty tame. Nothing kids don’t get in actual high school. (I swear you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to high school and my experience wasn’t that bad but still…Ugh)
Overall Grade C Content Grade- B