Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Movie Review: The Duff (2015)

I’m going to guess that this is because I didn’t go to high school in the U.S., but labels were never really a thing when I was growing up. Sure, there were certain cliques but we only really had three of them in my year: The geeks, the smokers and everyone else. Yeah, I was a definite geek and I had great friends within that circle but I was never completely driven away from everyone else though; I would frequently talk with the others and while I made a few frenemies along the way, I was relatively comfortable with everyone in the year. If I did have a label that I wasn’t aware of, aside from the nickname “Vol-Cain-O” that I earned due to my short temper, it would have probably been “entertainer”, “show-off” or possibly “sideshow attraction”; I loved being the center of attention and trying to make people around me laugh. It didn’t always work out that way, and I would occasionally get laughed at but in retrospect I’m at least glad I got some kind of reaction. With this in mind, movies about high school life never really clicked with me aside from the rare outlier like Ben X. Well, we’re already on the subject of hipster-ish choices for movies, so let’s get started with today’s pick: This is The Duff.

The plot: Bianca (Mae Whitman) has her entire school social life thrown into question when jock Wesley (Robbie Amell) points her out as ‘The Duff’ among her friends: The Designated Ugly Fat Friend; someone approachable to make her friends look better by comparison. After internalizing the label, and deciding that that isn’t what she wants to be, she asks Wesley for help in getting a date with musician Toby (Nick Eversman) in exchange for helping his failing grades. As Bianca is put through her paces, mean girl Madison (Bella Thorne) wants to keep Bianca away from her on-again-off-again boyfriend Wesley and put her in her place.

In teen comedies, the cast flies or dies by how relatable and/or identifiable they are in their roles, and on that front this is a superb cast. Mae Whitman may be largely known for her voice work, most famously as Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender and most recently as Tinker Bell in the surprisingly decent Tinker Bell & The Pirate Fairy, but she is great in the lead role. She may be playing Juno-lite, right down to the love for cult horror movies (I will admit though, that poster for Lucio Fulci’s Zombie in her room as a nice touch), but nevertheless she’s funny, charming and full of indie-brand quirk that audiences love so much (apparently). Robbie Amell delivers Wesley’s blunt and occasionally dickish lines just right to pull off the likable jerk that could have gone a lot worse in a film like this, not to mention have amazing chemistry with Mae in every one of their scenes together. Bella Thorne essentially brings back her role from Alexander And The Terribly Long Title and dials it all the way up, creating one of the meaner mean girls I’ve seen on film; perfect Two-Minutes Hate material every time she’s on screen, if that’s your thing. Everyone else in the cast does really well, but the biggest surprise for me was Ken Jeong as Bianca’s teacher Mr. Arthur. After being so deeply annoyed by this guy in films like The Hangover sequels and Transformers 3: The Rise Of Deep Wang, seeing Ken Jeong being this genuinely funny is kind of shocking. Sure, his first scene as previewed in the trailer is awkward, and not in a good way, but he works really well as a sort of confidante for Bianca as well as portraying one of the more realistic high school teachers I’ve seen of late.

If you have any idea what an indie-style high school romantic comedy looks like, then chances are you know what this movie will be like as well. What ultimately kind of sucks about this movie, unfortunately, is that it isn’t anything all that groundbreaking. As much as it likes to flaunt how subversive it is, the fact that it is one of many movies doing exactly that shows that it is still just following the crowd, albeit a slightly smaller crowd. The whole social mentor thing, especially in a high school setting, is nothing new and without a doubt will have audiences guessing the ending right from the trailer, it’s been used that much. Of course, that’s not to say that the message they’re trying to convey is worthless or anything, it’s just that we live in an age where everyone is pushing for body positivity; whatever day you see this movie, chances are you will have come across at least three items telling you to be proud of who you are. I honestly can’t help but tilt my head at people who are already calling this a potential cult classic like Mean Girls, because not only is that not how cult classics even work but this isn’t even as biting as Mean Girls in the first place. It tries to make similar kind of observations about the social system within high schools and where people fit in, but honestly the most poignant thing said on that front is during the opening narration when Bianca brings up how the cliques are changing, like how jocks are now gamers and the like. This whole changing perceptions of how stereotypes actually look admittedly does lead to a few very funny moments about what Bianca thinks pornos are like nowadays, but the insight given overall isn’t all that… well, insightful.

It just ends up falling into the same trap a lot of other teen comedies focusing on the whole labelling thing end up doing: Trying to denounce the idea of labels and how they don’t matter while also trying to make their own label popular, something that inevitably happens by film’s end and makes the lead-up feel rather hollow. It doesn’t help that the entire set-up for the film is the idea that people are friends with Duffs with that label in mind, which… yeah, I just don’t get that at all. That’s not to say that this doesn’t have anything new or interesting to say, though. While the set-up is a tad questionable, the film itself makes the smart move and instead treats the label ‘Duff’ largely as something that feeds Bianca’s insecurities and makes her question herself. There’s also a very good scene with Mr. Arthur and the principal where they are discussing how to deal with a video about Bianca that has gone viral in the school. Mr. Arthur actually makes the most reasonable suggestion I’ve seen a teacher make in one of these movies: Deal with the matter quietly, because doing it out in the open will only make Bianca more of a target. The hideously out-of-touch principal doesn’t follow this, because at least some of the school faculty stereotypes have to be followed, but it’s a greatly appreciated addition nonetheless. Even outside of the attempts at commentary, the main couple work that well together that, despite the predictable path they go down including the obligatory red herring love interest, they draw attention away from the film’s faults and make the experience fun on their own. To be fair, though, said red herring Toby is a White Guy With Acoustic Guitar, so I highly doubt that it would’ve worked out regardless of the story structure used.


All in all, while slightly generic and coated in standard indie sheen, the cast is very good with a very cute and likable main couple and while the writing may not be that good with its commentary, it is damn funny in a lot of places. You might not leave the cinema with anything all that meaningful, but you certainly won’t leave it feeling like you’ve wasted your 100-or-so minutes watching it. It’s higher up than Foxcatcher, as this had me more consistently attached to the characters involved, but it does rank just below Paper Planes which, however ironic it may have been, gave me more entertainment value overall. If you have a thing for teen comedies or could just use a bit of a funny diversion, then this is worth checking out.

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