High school cliques—jocks, geeks, princesses, bullies, and basket cases—get a new subgroup in The DUFF, an amiable and amusing new high school rom-com. Boasting engaging performances the comedy mines obvious teen film tropes ranging from public humiliation to triumph at the school dance. Bianca (Mae Whitman) learns from her football jock neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell) that she’s a DUFF—that’s Designated Ugly Fat Friend, or the approachable member of a group who makes the others look better in comparison.
When Bianca, is assgined an essay for the school paper on social life in high school, she tries to correct her place in the social pecking order. She ditches her BFFs and asks Wes for help at being popular. He agrees because he needs her help to pass a science class. Soon, Bianca is stepping out of her comfort zone and taking control of her world. Unfortunately, the invisibility she once resented becomes desirable after an embarrassing video of her goes viral. The DUFF emphasizes its “be yourself” message (which it repeats every time Bianca has self-doubts) as Bianca and Wes help each other both romantically and academically.
While The DUFF does not necessarily traverse new ground, its tale of transformation is as comfortable as one of the flannel shirts Bianca wears. Even when she trades her Wreck-It Ralph overalls for a little black dress, Bianca shows that it’s dressing like who you are and owning it that matters. Still her makeover moments provide the film with some of its comic and dramatic highlights about opposites attracting.
Makeovers have been a staple of films set in high school.
Here are ten classics:
“Clueless” Cher (Alicia Silverstone) enjoys makeover “projects” like setting up her teachers (Wallace Shawn and Twink Caplan) for romance, or helping Tai (Brittany Murphy) adapt to being one of the cool kids. However, despite her fashion sense, her common sense is lacking. She eventually realizes that she needs to change and become a better person.
Life Lesson: Cher eventually finds love, even if it’s with her cousin (Paul Rudd).
“Can’t Buy Me Love” Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey) goes from geek to chic when he pays Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) $1,000 to be his girlfriend. His stock in high school rises, as his ethical values drop in this popular 80s comedy.
Life Lesson: As the song goes, Money Can’t Buy You Love.
“Perks of Being a Wallflower” In this terrific adaptation of the bestselling novel, Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a freshman who befriends two seniors—Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson) who coax him out of his shell.
Life Lesson: Coming of age hurts. But it’s better than sitting alone in your room.
“Angel” Molly (Donna Wilkes) is a high school honor student by day, and a teenage hooker by night. François Ozon’s recent film “Young and Beautiful” featured the same plot. It just never gets old.
Life Lesson: Hooking as a teen never pays.
“The Breakfast Club” In John Hughes’ classic, five teenagers grow and change during an all-day detention. Allison (Ally Sheedy) in particular, undergoes a physical transformation, trading in her Goth girl attire for a sunny dress.
Life Lesson: Don’t you forget about me.
“Grease” Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee! Sandy (Olivia Newton-John), the good girl glams it up with a sexy top and tight pants at the end of this quintessential high school musical.
Life Lesson: If you want to be popular, you gotta look like a whore.
“The Princess Diaries” It’s rough being a royal, in this family comedy about a teenager who discovers she’s heir to the throne. Can the tomboyish Mia turn into a Princess in this Cinderella story? Hint: It’s a Disney film.
Life Lesson: Fairy Tales can come true.
“G.B.F.” The initials stand for Gay Best Friend, because the queer high school hottie, Tanner (Michael J. Willett), is not just accepted, but a desired accessory for the popular girls. Darren Stein’s comedy reverses all those films that bashed teens for being queer. Of course, Tanner learns the lesson that popularity and changing to be part of the in-crowd has its price.
Life Lesson: Don’t go changing to try and please me.
“Thirteen” Who says a makeover has to be for the better? In this horror movie for parents, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) falls under the seductive spell of her bad girl best friend Evie (Nikki Reed). Suddenly, Tracy’s studies are rejected for sex, drugs, and disrespect!
Life Lesson: It’s never a good idea to piss mom off.
“Heathers” Rebelling against conformity, Veronica (Winona Ryder) joins forces with J.D. (Christian Slater) to kill off the intolerant teens in their high school, most notably the Heathers (Shannon Doherty, Lisanne Falk, and Kim Walker) in this classic black comedy.
Life Lesson: High school can be murder.
The DUFF opens in Philadelphia area theaters today.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.