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April 6, 2015
Don’t let the title put you off, the mainstream American high school flick is officially back with The Duff and even if unfortunately it’s not the comeback film nor the biopic of Hilary Duff that I am (not so) secretly waiting for, it’s absolutely worth a trip to the cinema.
The film stars Mae Whitman (The Perks Of Being A Wallflower) as high school senior Bianca Piper who is shocked to find out that she’s ‘the DUFF’ (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) to her two BFFs and has to hear the truth from her popular jock neighbour (and childhood friend) Wesley (Robbie Amell from The Flash TV series) nonetheless. Eager to reinvent herself, she has no other option but to enlist Wesley to help her de-DUFF herself and become the ‘dateable one’ in exchange for chemistry tutoring that would save him from being benched by the football coach, hence putting his chances of a college scholarship at risk. Bella Thorne (Blended) as Madison, the school’s ruthless ‘queen bee’ and Wesley’s ex girlfriend (of course), Ken Jeong (The Hangover, TV’s Community) as the funny but supportive teacher and Allison Janney (TV’s The West Wing) as Bianca’s self-help guru mother round out the strong ensemble cast.
I must admit I was dubious going into the film’s press screening since the concept seemed potentially terrible but Mae Whitman as the lead, eye candy from Robbie Amell, Allison Janney in the supporting cast and of course the escapism provided by the American teenage dream for an hour and 40 minutes, easily lured me in. And well, within a few moments after the film started the doubts I had were gone. Mae Whitman is definitely not ugly or fat (even pre her character’s make over) which was my main problem but the film heavily explains that ‘duff’ is more of a term than an exact description. Whitman dazzles on the screen, as does Robbie Amell, proving he’s got way more to offer than just his looks. The sharp script had me engaged and laughing throughout and begged the question, where are the other recent teen films?
After a consistent surge from the 80’s through to the mid 00’s, either good or bad, Hollywood seems to be in a drought of green-lighting teen films unless it’s a Twilight (the bad) or a The Hunger Games (the better option) style franchise. This has made room for some light on a wonderful string of indie teen films (The Kings of Summer, GBF, The To Do List) but with smaller PR budgets and no longer having video rental stores for their VHS covers to stand out on, they haven’t had the full chance to find their audience and possibly dampening the opportunity to become the cult classics they deserve to be, only time will tell. The Duff, being a welcome return to the mainstream since 2010’s Easy A, does feel like both an instant classic and a future cult classic and thankfully not the mess it could have been (I wish I could forget Paris Hilton’s The Hottie and The Nottie).
When I met with Bella Thorne (“queen bee” Madison) she noted: “Even just reading the script we knew we had something special on our hands. We just hoped that we’d all be good enough to cut it together right and make sure that it came out well. When you film a comedy it’s so difficult because you do it so many times and Ari (Sanfel, the films director) did it every single way in the book, any way that you could think of, we did it. And with comedy, when you do it that many times, you’re really just beating a dead horse and there’s no one laughing and you know it’s not funny anymore, so it just brings down the whole vibe. It’s difficult to keep that momentum. So when I was watching the film, I was like oh my god this is really good! From our director of photography to our editor to Ari, and of course our actors, everybody did a really great job on the film.”
Bella’s character definitely stands out, and is a complete scene stealer with catty one-liners and moments that I think will stand out even more to the audience on repeated viewings. There will be the obvious comparisons which Bella mentioned herself but I think Madison is also up there with one of my personal favourite screen queen bees, the vicious Christy Masters in Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.
Bella, is soon to be seen in MTV’s upcoming Scream TV series where she’ll be recreating the iconic Drew Barrymore role, a responsibility she confesses to have taken quite seriously: “filming Scream was so interesting, I had so much to live up to from Drew. It’s going to be real good and it’ll be the most you have seen of me body-wise as I’m wearing a little tiny black bikini the whole time. The scene is a bit more than a sexy thing because my character is mean, again! A mean rich girl who walks round the pool in this robe and then gets in and it was also very cold and you know it just all goes down hill from there… It just gets bad and the way they use snapchat to mess with my character is beyond messed up and because I’m such a snapchatter it really freaked me out. Everybody asks me if I’m coming back because you know I obviously die in the first episode but I might have to go film something else, I don’t know…”
Bella actually based Madison on one of my other favourite films as she told me “The main inspiration was Rose McGowan from Jawbreaker, that was the closest to my character. All the others, like for instance Regina George, people compare my character to a lot but she’s really not like that because Regina George is still nice to your face and then a bitch behind your back and that’s not my character, she’s just mean all the time.” This is exactly the kind of film I was obsessed with whilst growing up. What’s nice here (similarly to last year’s GBF) is the fact that the lead is actually someone my inner teen can relate to. I am completely a ‘DUFF’ even as an adult but if that means I’m even one tenth as charming and charismatic as Mae Whitman then I’ll take that as a compliment.
It’s safe to say I really liked The Duff and I’m already looking forward to my repeated viewings of it. You could argue that there’s nothing new here, it’s Pretty In Pink & She’s All That with the tone of Easy A. It has all been done before but this isn’t a bad thing, it’s a right of passage for this generation to have their own.
The Duff serves that purpose well and yet manages to still be fresh and unique enough to stand on its own. Plus wouldn’t we all feel a little short-changed if there was no ‘lets get you a new look’ montage and the whole cast actually looked age appropriate? It also incorporates the social media element well which I think ultimately it winds up horribly making any other genre dated but it’s welcomed in the teen film to be a representation of the time it was made in.
The teen movie is back with a bang and it’s a welcome return for the genre. If it’s here to stay, I hope Hollywood uses The Duff as a benchmark for quality instead of giving us a bunch of movies that are actually dud film ‘DUFFs’ themselves.
The Duff is now available in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray