Back in high school, I yearned for the yellow tartan wardrobe of Clueless, the teen-witch clique of The Craft, and the brooding bad boy from 10 Things I Hate About You. All while the Dazed and Confused soundtrack played in my head.
Of course, as a resident of the real world, my secondary education was largely unfulfilling.
The teen high school movie is the annoying little sister of modern cinema – embarrassing, vapid and never quite taken seriously. But when done right, the genre’s zeitgeist-capturing impact is undeniable.
How, then, does 2015’s latest schoolyard offering fare?
Meet The DUFF’s Bianca (Mae Whitman), a spunky senior who occupies her time with zombie art, two stunning best friends, and a debilitating crush on a floppy-haired muso. It’s a comfortable existence until jock/neighbour/Tom Cruise 2.0, Wesley (Robbie Amell), lets Bianca’s DUFF status slip. She’s the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, whose sole purpose – amongst others with the title – is to act as the gatekeeper to her more desirable gal pals.
This being a teen movie, Bianca enlists the Hunk Next Door to un-DUFF her.
The premise is based on Kody Keplinger’s 2010 novel of the same name, written during her own high school purgatory. The film departs from the book’s darker MA15+ vibe, in favour of a candy-coloured comedy.
Pre-release, The DUFF had amassed a vocal army of online cynics, aghast at the introduction of a new catchword for impressionable youngsters. The prospect of pre-teens hashtagging each other #ugly and #fat didn’t exactly scream positive body image. Only two months into the year, feminist magazine Bitch called it the Worst Movie of 2015.
Let this serve as a cautionary tale not to judge a film by its tacky promotional material.
Whitman, of course, is neither ugly nor fat, and the film is quick to explain the concept is relative. Our eponymous heroine is merely the ‘lesser’ in her trio of BFFs. Whatever that means. Apparently a pair of overalls is the gateway denim to high school obscurity – à la Laney Boggs from She’s All That.
It’s true that The DUFF is packed with tropes: the fitting room montage, the homecoming finale, and the wistful glances at the hot neighbour’s bedroom window. It’s even graced by Allison Janney, the genre’s favourite Off Kilter Mum (Juno, The Way Way Back).
Regardless, it proves to be a surprisingly self-aware, post-modern romp. The opening scene itself pays homage to John Hughes’ five ‘types’ in The Breakfast Club. You can’t help but feel Oscar-winning director Ari Sandel knew what we’d expect – two hours of twenty-something ‘teens’ enacting classroom clichés – and set out to prove us all wrong.
Despite the themes of shallow beauty standards and high school popularity, The DUFF takes a principled, feminist-friendly stance.
For one, it doesn’t inspire cattiness. Perennially-pouting Madison (Bella Thorne) is a carbon copy of Mean Girls’ Regina George, but without the memorable one-liners. As awful as Madison is, Bianca doesn’t retaliate with a Heathers-esque takedown. Instead, our heroine serves the bully with a heart-to-heart about labels and self-respect – perhaps with more cheese than we ordered, but the sentiment remains. Girls supporting girls!
Then, there’s that admirable rejection of stereotypes. Too often, female characters are limited to just one positive attribute, as if there’s some sort of personality quota. Yes, Bianca’s friends are beautiful, but they’re afforded more than one (stick-thin) dimension. They’re loyal, stylish, computer-hacking intellectuals who are willing to ditch their homecoming dates for pizza with their best friend.
And when it does come time for The Big Dance, Bianca’s makeover is more of a non-transformation. Cue the overly symbolic use of her favourite flannel shirt, sewn – by her best friend – into an alt-cool prom dress. When Bianca’s male schoolmates turn their heads and drop their jaws, it’s not because she’s new and improved. It’s because they were stupid enough to overlook her in the first place.
Brodie Lancaster, Rookie writer and editor of film/feminism zine Filmme Fatales, interviewed Whitman for the publication’s inaugural issue and recognises the genre’s indisputable influence on suggestible young viewers.
“I think teen films are hugely important, purely because the way people are represented in the media informs the way they’re viewed and treated by society,” she says.
“It’s important to see stories about people of all races, genders, sexualities, sizes, and socioeconomic backgrounds portrayed honestly and often, just as it’s important to see the stories of people of all ages.
“The genre can be strengthened with the work of writers and directors who understand their audiences and characters, and are not interested in talking down to them.”
Inevitably, the film will continue to garner debate amongst pop culture commentators and teen movie aficionados – but the love for show-biz veteran Whitman seems to be universal. She’s so endearing as Bianca, you’ll secretly want your friends to designate you Ugly and Fat too.
The DUFF is the girl in comfortable clothes – crocs and socks – watching Japanese horror films and nerding out in chemistry. She punches the jerk in the face. She asks her crush out on a date. But she’s not afraid to be vulnerable and cry in a toilet cubicle.
No, The DUFF is not the pinnacle of feminism in cinema. But perhaps, against all odds, the film ultimately promotes empowerment and self-love to a young female crowd so often bombarded with superficial ‘perfection’. Perhaps the teen high school movie is the medium in which these positive messages can actually be conveyed.
If this is the direction teen films are heading, maybe that’s not so bad. Maybe modern cinema’s annoying little sister is finally blossoming into a kick-ass young woman.