Its been thirty years since the ultimate high school classification guide graced the big screen in the form of The Breakfast Club. The John Hughes-directed film found the lives of five students crash into one another during one fateful stint in weekend detention. The social order of athletes, princesses, basket cases, criminals and nerds blurred together into a very humanizing tale about the North American teenage experience.
While the underlying sentiments of the classic film persist, Hughes’ groupings could do with a refresher. Mean Girls proposed a new system that broke down the primary five categories into a mix of ethnic stereotypes and recreational activities. Easy A highlighted the religious contention and tackled bullying on the basis of personal decision making.
The DUFF suggestion is a blend between a class and a role: a DUFF. Birthed out of author Kody Keplinger’s mind, the DUFF is for the Pinteresting millennials (though it could have worked in Hughes’ days, too); it is the name for the friend in every group whose role is to make others look good. They are the approachable ones. They are the Designated Ugly Fat Friend (but don’t take this literally; the other characteristics are much more definitive of a DUFF than the cruel title itself.)
In the movie (based on Keplinger’s book, which I have not read), the DUFF in question is Bianca (Mae Whitman, Parenthood, Arrested Development), who like the rest of us, has no clue that there is such a thing as a “DUFF”; she just knows she’s different from her two best friends Jessica and Casey. That is, until her ex-best friend/next door neighbour/resident jock-y guy Wesley (Robbie Amell, The Tomorrow People, The Flash) spells it out for her at a high school party held by his on-and-off girlfriend, Madison (Bella Thorne, Blended, upcoming TV series Scream). Horrified by the title, Bianca sets out to rid herself of DUFF status and attract her long-time crush, Toby (Nick Eversman, Missing, Wild). She strikes a deal to help Wesley in school in exchange for his assistance to un-DUFF her.
It’s tempting to call The DUFF out on following several typical teen film devices; there’s an unrelenting mean girl, the main character undergoes an extensive transformation process, the popular guy is an integral part of said transformation, a big dance etc, but it’s also those familiar elements that make teen movies so enjoyable. Where it differs from other entries (most will likely draw comparisons to She’s All That) is with Bianca. Although she absolutely despises being considered a DUFF, she never really loses sight of her core personality. It’s a pretty important trait, especially in the face of the cyberbullying that she faces over the course of the story because she manages to come out on the other side still true to herself. Those subplots also add some interesting and saddening social context to the modern high school experience, but never at the price of the story’s momentum.
To be clear, The DUFF is very, very funny. It’s drenched in all sorts of colloquial insults and hashtags and it sticks to its Boom, Clap! era so much that the Spinal Tap reference made in the film feels extremely outdated. While the secondary characters tend to get lost behind Bianca’s fully-fleshed out story and sometimes pale in comparison to recent teen comedy additions, the cast does a fairly good job at holding the tent pole characteristics up. This is primarily true for Thorne and Amell. Madison has zero redeeming qualities and it makes it difficult to understand why Wesley would ever want to date her in the first place, but both Thorne and Amell are fun enough to watch on screen. Naturally, seasoned comedic actors Ken Jeong (The Hangover, Community) and Allison Janney (Mom, Hairspray), who play Bianca’s teacher and mother respectively, are strong bets during the small amount of screen time that they receive. Janney drops the film’s only major curse word and it could not have been delivered by anyone else as perfectly.
The easy highlight of this entire film is Mae Whitman, who is a completely brilliant and hilarious lead that helps the audience find a lot of heart with the whole concept of a “DUFF”. It is a difficult feat to achieve; some may criticize the term, but in the film itself it comes across less literal and concerns itself more with the role of such names in high school. Whitman does such a wonderful job at inspiring the audience to look beyond those labels in a performance that is as memorable as her Lohan and Stone counterparts and makes The DUFF an easy addition to a classic roster of teen flicks.
I attended an early screening of The DUFF courtesy of a ticket giveaway from eOne Films. The DUFF is out in North American theatres now.