Every generation has at least one definitive teen movie. You've seen them. You grew up rewatching them. You may have them committed to memory. The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Clueless, Mean Girls, Easy A: these are the films weaved through many an adolescent experience. The list goes on — and there's always a new contender lurking around the corner.
Circa 2015, that'd be The DUFF. For those unfamiliar with the term, it stands for designated ugly fat friend — or the pal in each clique that makes the rest look better, and that interested parties can approach for all the goss. Everyone has one, the movie tells us. If you don't know who fits the mould in your group, it might just be you.
That's what overalls-wearing, horror flick-loving Bianca (Mae Whitman) discovers when her football jock neighbour, Wesley (Robbie Amell), explains why everyone in the school always asks her about her life-long best friends (Skyler Samuels and Bianca A. Santos). This isn't welcome news, unsurprisingly. To shake the label — and to try to win the heart of the guy (Nick Eversman) she likes — Bianca enlists Wesley's help on a mission of reinvention.
Yep, that's deja vu you're feeling, courtesy of a storyline so well worn it should be threadbare by now. Over the course of decades of delving into high school angst and antics, the teen movie genre has assembled a long lineup of cliches, with that wealth of history clearly on display here. Add equal parts makeover fantasy and trawling through social hierarchies, plus the usual schoolyard cruelty led by a mean queen bee (Bella Thorne), and garnish with an ample helping of current lingo and issues (here, text speak and social media horrors such as viral videos). It's a popular recipe, making The DUFF just like all other teen fare — even if it is actually based on a novel of the same name.
And yet, within a film that sets its protagonist up to shatter stereotypes but does so little of that kind of subversion itself, there's fun to be had — and not just in the fond memories it conjures for even average movies gone by, like the very similar She's All That. Much of it comes from Whitman, a likeable lead rising above the sometimes-silly flow of the story, and willing to go along with the ample physical comedy required. For fans of Arrested Development, her casting may seem like an extension of the series' long-running joke about her character's blandness, but in The DUFF she's anything but. Indeed, she doesn't really fit the film's title, either; unattractive, she's not.
Of course, nestled in first-time filmmaker Ari Sandel's upbeat effort are those other components as commonplace as a prom showdown (also present): the message of acceptance, and the reminder that, deep down, nobody's perfect. That's just the standard topping sprinkled over this by-the-book story, but it's also a fitting reminder for avid teen movie aficionados. In a genre often as formulaic as its typical narratives, they can't all stand out, but they might each have their modest merits.