Movie review: “The DUFF”

There’s a scene in “Not Another Teen Movie,” where the protagonist’s friend bets him that he can’t turn an ugly girl into a prom queen, and looks around their high school campus for candidates. After considering and rejecting an albino folk singer, a hunchback, and conjoined twins, he picks the girl who has – get ready – glasses, a ponytail and paint-stained overalls. In a later scene, another girl instructs her to remove her glasses and unloosen her ponytail and says, “I’m a miracle worker!” Because in a Hollywood teen movie, that’s all it ever takes. Of course, if these characters ever attended your high school, they’d probably be mobbed, but in movies, they tend to be targets of outright derision – at least until they learn to stand up for their values and Believe In Themselves.

Which is to say that if you’ve seen a movie before, you don’t really need me to give you the extended plot of “The DUFF,” in which Mae Whitman plays the less-than-pretty sidekick to her two model friends, until she realizes her role is that of the “gatekeeper,” in which guys only approach her in order to get details on whether her friends would be receptive to going out with them. Of course, two of the “designated ugly fat friend,” letters are inaccurate, but this is a Hollywood high school in which even the non-Queen Bees are model tall with perfect hair and skin that has never encountered a zit. One character informs her boyfriend that she can, if she wishes, date thirty-year-olds which is believable because the actress appears to be well into her twenties. In any event, stung into action, Mae agrees to tutor her next door neighbor (Robbie Amell), a popular jock who she used to be friends with as kids, in science if he will help her overcome her DUFF status. Let the life lessons begin.

The DUFF role, as Mae’s teacher (Ken Jeung) points out has been around for decades, it just gets a different label every now and then. With a few exceptions, the film follows the standard makeover movie plot, in which the following commandments are evoked, so that the viewer will have comforting flashbacks to films like “She’s All That,” “10 Things I Hate About You,” “Drive Me Crazy,” and (near the end) a nod to “Pretty in Pink.” So even if you’re not in high school anymore, it will still feel familiar, as each trope pops up. Here are six that will make you nod knowingly.

1. Thou shalt begin the movie totally clueless.

2. Thou shalt undergo a healthy dose of humiliation.

3. Thou shalt discover that one’s unattainable crush is actually a jerk.

4. Thou shalt be given an assignment by an adult which will put everything into perspective.

5. Thou shalt tell off one’s rival in amazingly eloquent terms near the end.

6. Thou shalt realize that True Love has been right under one’s nose all along.

Of course, by the end, Mae is triumphant – telling off the Queen Bee, snagging the guy and getting acclaim for her article about Homecoming in the school. She’s still dressing like a refugee from the nineties, but she now has healthy self-esteem. And the guy, which isn’t supposed to be the point, but of course, is.

The audience I saw the movie with also enjoyed it, laughing hysterically throughout. But to be fair, the trailer for the “Mall Cop” sequel in which Kevin James is relentlessly pummeled in the nuts and elsewhere, which was shown beforehand also received this reaction. It was also a school vacation week. So you decide.

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