Teen dramas and romantic comedies are a weirdly cool thing now, thanks to some great movies in the ’80s like Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), and Say Anything (1989). The ’90s had its own delightful entries like Clueless (1995), and even now we get some treasures like Easy A (2010), or movies that flirt with the genres like Juno (2007). The drama aspect has certainly taken center stage for the moment with popular YA entries and indie flicks like The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and The Spectacular Now (2013). I love all of the variations (well, I haven’t seen The Fault in Our Stars, admittedly), but I’m overjoyed when a high school drama has fun and doesn’t feel the need to put on too much irony when telling its story. The DUFF—much like its 2010 incarnation, Easy A—captures those positive qualities.
The DUFF (2015) gets its name from the concept of social cliques, referring to the friend in a group who is the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Bianca (Mae Whitman) is told that she is the DUFF of her friendship trio by Wesley (Robbie Amell), a jock who Bianca has known for years due to being neighbors. This causes Bianca to shun her friends and turn to Wesley to become capable of asking out some tool named Toby (Nick Eversman) who brings his acoustic guitar everywhere.
The plot summary reflects the movie’s biggest flaw: it relies on the very tropes that it only occasionally critiques. When The DUFF engages with the themes and morals of high school dramas/comedies, it’s thoughtful on top of being funny and clever. For example, Bianca’s friends are shown to be great, caring people, but Bianca totally cuts them out of her life because a guy tells her about a social pecking order that her friends don’t even know about. These standards and measures of worth are imposed on people, but most importantly they turn friends against each other, pitting women against women. This clearly reflects the way we’re socialized not only to accept our places in society, but to turn against those whom we should value.
However, if you’re going to mock the genre you’re using, you can’t just borrow tropes for convenience without being aware of their pernicious qualities. The two biggest offenders in this regard are “The Makeover” and “He Was Right There All Along” tropes, which are two huge components of the story that are unchallenged. The issue isn’t even that The DUFF uses these tropes, but that it seems entirely unaware of the way those scenes push narratives that harm women’s sense of self-worth, and pushes forward the now-mocked concept of “The Nice Guy.”
There is some minimal commentary: Bianca feels the need to get a makeover because of social standards imposed on her, but is shamed by her entire school because someone captures a video of her actually enjoying the process. She’s pushed to do this thing, but then shamed for doing it. Still, the movie uses the essence of “The Makeover” repeatedly, to the point that the big homecoming dance hinges upon her getting dressed up. She’s allowed to just be herself, but only if she expresses herself in terms of social standards. For a movie that wants to be subversive, it too often gets caught being a summary rather than a critique of the genre.
These criticisms are undoubtedly a little harsh and nitpicky, but as I often do, I’m putting the movie to a higher standard because I think the director and screenwriter, Ari Sandel and Josh A. Cagan, demand it. The DUFF wants to mock problematic aspects of its generic kin. It wants to be our Breakfast Club, emphasized by the opening line: “For generations of high schoolers, you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully, or a basket case. But, times have changed.” This is obviously a throwback to the famous closing narration of The Breakfast Club, with the implication that we’re about to see how Sandel and Cagan reshape the ’80s classic for the modern age. That’s a high standard to set, and thus it invites a consideration of whether that standard is met.
And my nitpicking is a bit too harsh, but it’s meant to indicate that The Duff doesn’t pull it all off. There are just too many small details missing. However, that doesn’t undermine the movie’s successes as an above-average high school drama/comedy flick. The writing is as good as Easy A‘s, with moments that made me laugh harder than most comedies. It has a personality all its own. Most importantly, all of the jokes are rooted in an understanding of the characters, pretty much all of whom are fleshed out well beyond all of the other classics that I mentioned.
My hastily made point here is that The DUFF is a great movie. It’s fun, hilarious, memorable, and well constructed at almost every level. It even has some solid food for thought. However, its purposeful references and intertextuality reveal ambition that was sadly not met in full, thus leaving me with a sense of missed opportunity. For all of those issues, though, The DUFF has quickly become a movie that I hope to watch repeatedly with various groups of friends, and if nothing else, it deserves to be at least a footnote in the canon of its genre’s greats.