What’s New is Old is New Again: The DUFF and Teen Angst Film

Warning: Spoilers!

The Duff

The genre of teen films, which I call teen angst, has slowly evolved over time. There’s classics like American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1978), and The Last Picture Show (1971), but there’s a way in which these films look at teenagers more than looking out from amongst them. Many of these films depict teen life, sometimes with great nuance, but there’s no sense that the camera, or the narrator, or the central consciousness is coming from within. Rather than the point-of-view being placed within the teen world, the camera looks at teen life from the outside. These films can be sensitive and feeling, but it’s an empathy from a visitor to the teen world rather than the empathy that comes from within their community.

There are other early teen stories that tell the story from within rather than without. Three that come to mind–and I’m sure there are more–would be The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963), Doogie Howser (1989-1993), and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Both Dobie and Doogie are similar in that they follow a first-person journal entry narrative structure for telling their protagonists’ tales. Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) would break the fourth wall, talking to the camera, sharing his thoughts, problems, and morals. Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris) would do the same, but through a comically old computer screen at the end of every episode. For a genius whiz-kid doctor savant, his journal entries were always oddly short, but wonderfully epigrammatic in their moral lessons: “A mother-son relationship has many stages: unconditional love, animosity, rejection, friendship . . . It’s a lot to go through all in one weekend.”

Ferris Bueller

Even ol’ Zach Morris got into the Doogie game with his freeze-time discussions with the audience in early episodes of Saved By the Bell (1989-1993). But no one broke the fourth wall more iconically than Ferris Bueller.  Since then you’ve seen other teen angst films make the Bueller move with narration from the main character, such as Juno (2008), or with even more than one main character, Election (1999).

Moving from first-person narration, there’s other key characteristics of modern day teen angst films, many of them coming from 1980s films. In addition to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ve got Heathers (1989), The Breakfast Club (1985), Teen Wolf (1985), Adventures in Babysitting (1987), and Better Off Dead (1985), to name a few. Then, in the early 90s, you’ve got Clueless (1995), a satire of wealthy but out-of-touch California teens, starring Alicia Silverstone (Cher). Some of the tropes that emerge from these films include your protagonist–usually a guy–on the margins of polite high school society, neither cool nor uncool. You’ve got the side-kick that is usually completely outside the high school cool community, the “girl” he’s chasing after, the villain, who is either out to get the protagonist, woo the girl, or usually both. In terms of plot, the main character usually goes from being a reject, to gaining some success, to being an asshole, to getting his comeuppance, and then finally learning his lesson and making a final–and successful–attempt to get the girl. Sometimes there’s a revelation that the girl he wants is a different girl than the one he first sought after.

Heathers

Then there’s of course there’s the different high school archetypes, which The Breakfast Club basically defined, and to which almost every teen angst film since has been directly or indirectly alluding to. The Breakfast Club is to teen angst films what Shakespeare is to drama–you can love him or you can hate him, but you’ve got to make your peace with him if you’re going to be in the game. So, for high school dramas–at least insofar the Breakfast Club is concerned, you’ve got the princess, the jock, the criminal, the geek, and the basket case.

In the early aughts, the teen angst film genre changed a little bit more, while still keeping true to its roots. Three notable changes–and I’m sure there are more–would be the focus on female leads, the self-referential nature of the storytelling, and the . . . hmmm . . . I’ll call it the “after school” moral ending. In terms of female leads, you’ve got Ellen Page as Juno MacGuff in Juno (2007), Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron in Mean Girls (2004), and Emma Stone as Olive in Easy A (2010).  In terms of self-referentiality, you’ve got the inside joke of having Matthew Broderick as the teacher in Election (1999), 13 years after playing the high school kid in Ferris Bueller. And in terms of after school special, feel good, moral endings, well, where to start, and where to end? We’ve come a long way from Heathers, and these days teen angst films seem to have a hot cider on a cold day feel to them at the end. I don’t know how you feel about that. It’s like watching a Blue Bell Ice Cream commercial. Anyways.

Juno

There are other trends too, for instance, the way parents seem to be “hip” and “with it” in modern day teen angst films, but were almost invariably dunces and fools in older teen angst films. There’s the way that books need to be knocked out of someone’s hands, or they need to fall out of someone hands in the first 20 minutes of the film, in order to indicate who’s a jerk and who’s just unassuming and goofy and just getting by (usually, the female protagonist).  There’s the way that everyone is just way too freggin’ witty, and the way everyone–or too many people–seem to know obscure cultural references. Again, I could be wrong, but this feels different from 80s and early 90 teen angst films, where many of the characters were monosyllabic dunces. There’s the way that the characters seem to weirdly have way too much money or cool gadgets or nice houses–the Friends phenomenon (how they’d get those apartments)? And finally, there’s the way the female protagonist simply must be dressed in overalls–or something stereo-typically unfeminine–at the beginning of the film, so that she can have a transformation by the end.

Anyways, that brings me to The Duff (2015), directed by Ari Sandel.

This is a film about Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman), a character that is like a franken construction of many if not most of the characteristics I just mentioned. She’s goofy, hapless, has a lot of obscure cultural references (“Bela Lugosi”), dresses in overall-esque clothing, and is on the margins of polite high school society. Oh, and she narrates her own story and has a crush on a guy from afar.

She has two friends, Jess and Casey, who are far more popular than she is, with everyone, but especially with guys. Bianca–or “B”–also has a childhood friend, Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) who lets her in on an open secret that she has been heretofore unaware of: she is the DUFF of Jess and Casey. What is a DUFF? An ugly fat friend, the one that is the gate-keeper and ambassador to the hotter friends, a wingman, a nice background to make others look more attractive. Naturally, B is offended, and she immediately assaults Wesley and unfriends Jess and Casey. Her unfriending scene is particularly funny, as it makes fun of social media culture in a lighthearted way.

The Duff 3

After giving it some thought though, B seeks out Wesley’s help. She’ll help him with his Chemistry if he helps her go from the DUFF to the “it” girl. She wants to catch the eye of her crush, Toby (Nick Eversman), who she adores but who doesn’t even know she exists. There’s a few more plot twists, as well. She actively dislikes her mentor, Wesley, even though she spends the majority of the film talking to him; and he’s not super fond of her either. Oh, and then there’s the evil Madison Morgan (Bella Thorne) who 1) knocks someone’s books out of their hands in order to indicate that she is evil because of course she does 2) has a thing for Wesley, and 3) is insanely jealous that Wesley is spending time with Bianca. You might be able to see where all this is going.

The Duff 2

There’s a reason I told you about all of those teen angst film characteristics at the beginning of this blog post. It’s because this film has them all–or close to them all. It even has the reference to The Breakfast Club at the beginning of the film. Some of these characteristics got on my nerves (why is almost every adult a neutral or positive role model in this film?, not everyone has a car that nice, and the books falling or getting knocked out of someone’s hands is a little played out at this point). I was also reared among the films Better Off Dead, Heathers, and in my early adulthood, Election. So the teen films that I cut my teeth on are the kinds that are bitter, cynical, and sometimes scathing. I’m an Xennial; ironic bitter detachment is how we roll. So I’ll be honest, liking this film required some acclimation and acculturation from me. But I decided to come around. It grew on me. It is not a bitter film; it is not an edgy film; it is not an ironic film, and it doesn’t ridicule any of its characters. It’s even emotionally supportive of the villain, by the end, believe it or not.

I started out not particularly liking this film, but after about 45 minutes it started growing on me, and by the end, I came around. It’s a heartwarming story about people learning more about themselves, connecting with their old and new friends, supporting each other, and finding love in odd places. After watching the entire film, I’m not going to say it’s my favorite teen angst film. Far from it. But it’s a good film, with a good message, and with some funny scenes. I recommend it.

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