Every time a teen clique comedy is released it suffers by comparison to the towering examples that came before it. By now it’s pretty much been accepted that Heathers was the genre’s prime example of the 1980s, Clueless ruled the 90s, and Mean Girls stole the heart of the 2000s. But what of the current decade? What’s the 2010’s link in that evolutionary chain? Who will step up & take the teen clique torch? Although it’s received little love since its release I was pretty enamored with the 2013 sex comedy The To Do List. It was smart, crass, and above all hilarious, but that doesn’t seem like the exact logical choice. Set in the summer after high school (in the 90s), The To Do List was more concerned with the sexual self-discovery of one character instead of the hierarchal structure of an entire student body. If anything The To Do List was a descendent of the raunchy teen sex comedy, following films like Porky’s & American Pie, and probably the best example of that genre yet. So what of the teen clique flick?
Enter The DUFF. Much like with Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls, The DUFF’s main concern is how petty & mean-spirited high school hierarchies can be and just how easily they can be broken down. The only problem with its secession in that chain of teen clique media is that it is very conscious of updating the genre for the 2010s, instead of letting the connection happen naturally. Using cultural markers like YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr, The DUFF is seemingly dating itself in its own time period on purpose. It also intentionally looks back & borrows so many tropes from high school teen comedies of the past that I’m tempted to say it’s doing it for a laugh. Not only is the protagonist tutoring The Hot Guy in exchange for a makeover that will reveal that their really is a beautiful girl under all the geekery, but there’s also a Big Dance at the end, the Hot Guy totally falls for her, AND she’s writing a big expose about the entire experience for the school paper. Instead of aping just one teen comedy trope, The DUFF goes all in and tries to capture every single one it can.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t funny or original in its own right. With a little help from the always-dependable Allison Janney & the frequently funny Ken Jeong, The DUFF star Mae Whitman has found herself a breakout role here. She is just so damn funny in this movie. After years of watching Whitman kill it in small background roles, (literally fading into the background in the case of Arrested Development), it’s refreshing to see her get so much screen time here. And she owns it. Even with all of the high school movie clichés determining a rigid structure for the film, Whitman finds a way to make it work. A lot of people will be understandably turned off by the idea of the wonderfully talented Whitman starring in a film with a title that translates to “The Designated Ugly Fat Friend”, but the term is treated as an ugly thing within the film and Whitman does not take that shit lying down. When it’s revealed that she is the DUFF of her social circle, less because she is “fat” or “ugly” (she’s not and the movie doesn’t try to make her out to be) and more because she’s a B-Movie dork who’s obsessed with folks like Vincent Price & Bela Lugosi, she strikes back. She breaks off from her group & attempts to find herself with the help of her dumb, hot jock neighbor & eventual love interest.
The meanness of the film’s title matches the meanness of high school in a lot of ways & the script has a smart way of making light of it. Whitman isn’t the only DUFF in the film. There are also goth DUFFs, car DUFFs, and all kinds of DUFFs really. Once the protagonist discovers what she’s believes herself to be seen as, she starts to see other DUFFs everywhere. Her path to self-discovery may be a mere collection of throwback genre clichés, but it’s a tried & true formula that mostly serves as a platform for an onslaught of hilarious jokes. Sure, Whitman gets a makeover she didn’t need (including a straight-faced trying-on-clothes-at-the-mall montage), but she also threatens to murder & castrate anyone who tries to block her path to getting the life & the boy she wants. She’s bullied online, threatened by peers, and told to accept her place, but none of it kills her spirit. In the long run it’s hard to tell if The DUFF will be remembered as a decedent of the Heathers & Mean Girls pedigree (it certainly didn’t make a huge splash at the box office) or of admirable, but lesser teen clique fare like She’s All That & Ten Things I Hate About You, but it’s an easy pick for the best candidate at least since 2010’s Easy A.