★ ★ ★ ½
Famed philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once declared, “Hell is high school.” If must be we picky about it, the actual quote is, “Hell is other people.” but it’s a safe bet that, were Sartre a teenager in the year 2015, he would fully endorse this little play on his words. For one unlucky female student in The DUFF, the latest film about life in high school, discovering that she is the considered the ugly sidekick to her beautiful friends is as hellish as it gets.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a happy(ish), well-liked sophomore at Malloy High. She’s an exceptionally bright student with two gorgeous best friends, a motivational speaker for a mom and an absentee dad. Everything changes for Bianca the day her childhood pal Wesley, who is also the most popular boy in school, callously informs her that she is the “Designated Ugly, Fat, Friend” or D.U.F.F. According to Wesley (Robbie Amell), beautiful girls often befriend a less attractive girl in order to appear even more gorgeous in comparison. As expected, Bianca is horrified by this revelation and immediately confronts her friends, whose response of bewildered silence confirms to Bianca that she is indeed “The DUFF” in their relationship. Reeling from this betrayal, Bianca dumps her pals and vows to change her reputation with the help of shallow frenemy, Wesley.
Annoying acronym aside, The DUFF is one of the better high-school movies in recent years. Adapted from Kody Keplinger’s 2010 book of the same name and directed by Ari Sandel, there is an underlying vulnerability and sweetness lurking inside the film’s main characters, which harkens back to the John Hughes films of the 1980s. Bianca’s mom Dottie (Allison Janney) may be annoying with her constant motivational exhortations but Bianca, knowing that Dottie is still raw from a recent divorce, is unwaveringly kind to her, never openly dismissive or rude, which is a departure from the usual “adults are idiots” gimmick perfected by the creators of teen content over the past decade. Other adult characters such as Principal Buchanon (Romany Malco) and Bianca’s favorite teacher, Mr. Arthur (Ken Jeong) are goofy and funny but not stupid, nor are they blind to the challenges teens face as they come of age in a cyber-centric world.
In fact, social media takes a starring role in The DUFF, and it’s pretty darn scary to see the damage one tech-savvy mean girl can do to her perceived rival with a mere click of a button. Sandel further expounds on Generation Y’s reliance on technology in a scene where the students must turn in their phones for an entire day, leading them to go absolutely berserk; one boy lamenting how he “just thought of something funny and now nobody’s gonna know!” One particularly funny teacher, played by Chris Wylde, proclaims to his classroom, “I went to high school in the nineties and we did not have emoticons, we had actual facial expressions.” Interestingly, those are just the kind of lines that are sure to get the biggest laughs from teen viewers, many of whom probably already suspect they are too attached to their iPhones.
Surrounded by mostly two dimensional characters such as queen bee Madison (Bella Thorne) and her personality-free minions, Whitman as Bianca, is smart and slightly sardonic but also adorable and not at all ugly or fat; a fact that simultaneously helps the viewer share in her outrage and also makes them realize how grossly distorted the standards of beauty have become for teenagers in the new millennium. Even though Bianca wants to change the way she is perceived (at least by a certain guitar-strumming boy,) she’s not willing to lose herself in the process. Although one of her monologues near the end of the film does seem a bit too much like a public service announcement (one almost expects her to break the fourth wall and opine sincerely to the camera, “The more you know…,”) the overall message of self-acceptance is a valuable one, especially to the majority of teen girls out there who no doubt have often felt like telling their own critics to go to hell. Sartre would surely agree.