“She has the hottest friends”
Within the first minutes of The Duff, the narrator and main character, Bianca Tyler, tells us that things have not changed with regards to high school stereotypes. Yes, thanks to social networks, geeks are in. But, the high school hierarchies are still in place. The jocks get all the popular girls, the geeks still don’t get laid. Within the first five minutes, even with the fancy scene-cutting (mirroring life on the internet), The Duff hadn’t sold me on being anything different than your average high school teen comedy. And while it doesn’t tell us anything radical, the film tried it’s hardest to impress.
Bianca Tyler is in her last year of high school. Obviously, the Homecoming is coming up. Bianca is on the honor roll, can adequately play violin, and has two hot friends; Jess and Casey. In quick timing, we see all of the most important characters. There’s the popular girl/bitch: Madison Morgan (the first of names seemingly inspired by Marvel Comics alliteration!). There’s the cool teacher (who would never act like that in real life), Mr. Arthur. There’s Toby Tucker, Bianca’s high school crush. There’s the jock, Wesley Rush, who’s Bianca’s next door neighbour and sometimes friend (and looks a lot like Tom Cruise…but taller). He unwittingly becomes the pivot of Bianca’s life when he tells her that she’s The Duff-Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Bianca takes a look at herself in the mirror, and compares herself to The Joker falling into a vat of acid in the 1989 Batman film…enough is enough and it’s time for a change! She re-evaluates everything and dumps her friends. She then asks Wes to help her un-Duff herself, and she will help him pass science…
“That’s what sucking at life looks like”
So far, so predictable. The amount of time Bianca spends with Wes and the chemistry they share together holds much of the film together, but also signposts the ending. No one in the audience will be willing for Bianca to get with Toby. He’s a non-entity in the film, until Bianca goes on a date with him…and his true colours are revealed. That is no spoiler, by the way. If you can’t guess the ending after fifteen minutes, then you need help. The Homecoming, of course, has to be in the final act of the film. It is the peak of high school, where dreams come true or lives are ruined (if you are the main character in a film, though, your dreams will come true!).
However, the predictability of it all is outweighed by the strong performance of Mae Whitman as Bianca and a strong script. Whitman owns the screen in every scene she is in. Funny, sympathetic and an atypical star in a high school comedy, you will find yourself rooting for her from start to finish. The script and direction, as well, is hip, modern and up to date, full of internet and cultural references (Wes tells Bianca she should dress less like Wreck It Ralf, in a particularly funny quip). Bianca’s dumps her friends by unfollowing them/unfriending them on social networks, even though they are standing in front of each other. Her mother had a life-changing experience watching the ‘Five Stages’ Scene from the blowfish episode of The Simpsons. It all feels fresh and refreshing.
“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”
However, apart from its predictability, there are a few problems with The Duff. The message it is trying to get across is confusing. It is okay to be yourself…as long as you tart yourself up. Really? Yes, Bianca does wear a homemade dress for Homecoming, but her face is plastered with makeup. After seeing her o-naturale for most of the film, Bianca looks odd, not beautiful, with makeup. It would have made a greater impact if she would have gone to the Prom with an uncaked face. Isn’t that what the film is trying to tell us? Be yourself, don’t define yourself by anyone else’s standards (but don’t you have to define what the ‘other’ is to define yourself? Or this that too philosophical for a film like The Duff?).
Also, Wesley seems to get a bum deal from Bianca. He takes her to the mall, gives her date hints and game plans, etc. All Bianca’s help consists of is giving Wes her science notes…no one on one tutoring? Come on! If he was really struggling at science (a straight F student), reading someone else’s notes won’t help him. There’s also an interesting side-plot about a Principal trying to deal with cyber bullying. He confiscates all phones, and not much else. There is certainly more that could have been done with this side-plot. Bullying has evolved, but the response to bullying hasn’t…
But I am criticising a film that exists to be criticised. It’s won’t be in the top ten or fifteen teen comedies of all time. It won’t be remembered by this time next year. It didn’t give us a different spin or angle on the teen comedy. It’s predictable. It’s filmed for the Google/Youtube/Facebook generation, all quick cuts and distractions. But it’s worth a watch, if only to see Mae Whitman steal the show.
VERDICT: 7/10. Give it a few days chewing the cud, and the score will probably be reduced to 6/10. Average high school teen comedy lifted by a great central performance and a quick-witted script.