TEEN

What Makes 'The DUFF' This Generation's 'Mean Girls'

02/27/2015 02:50 pm ET
CBS

What makes a good teen movie? Tina Fey? The 2004 version of Lindsay Lohan? Glen Coco? "Mean Girls" has become the definitive high school comedy and "The DUFF" may be the classic for the next generation.

"The DUFF" hits all of the teen movie requirements: there's the vaguely sociopathic popular girl, the trying-on-lots-of-outfits scene and, as Vulture writer Bilge Ebiri notes, "the boy our heroine likes, who eventually turns out to be Mr. Wrong." But the movie moves beyond the genre's checklist and is more innovative than its beloved predecessor. "Mean Girls" is about the pain of adolescence and ever elusive feeling of fitting in. "The DUFF" takes on one specific part of that idea -- putting people in boxes, usually based on how they look -- and deconstructs it.

In terms of tone, "Mean Girls" makes "The DUFF" look like an ABC Original Series turned feature length film. It's starchy, corny and over-the-top. It would feel like a parody if it wasn't trying to be so earnest. But, the overarching message makes up for what the film lacks in quality.

Based on the title -- "DUFF" stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend" -- and the promo materials, the movie looks like another example of the trope across so many teen movies: our protagonist lets down her hair, puts on some lip gloss and is suddenly good enough to get the guy. For that, "The DUFF" faced controversy, and Mae Whitman -- who's fantastic and wildly relatable in the film -- experienced her share of backlash.

"I was like, 'I don’t want to see that,'" Whitman told HuffPost. "You know, where she takes off her glasses and all of a sudden the guy is like 'Actually, I do like you.' That’s not a story I felt invested in telling."

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That is not at all what "The DUFF" is about. Instead, Whitman's character Bianca goes through a transformation that is purely emotional. By the end of the film, she has strengthened her sense of self without a need for more makeup or a new wardrobe.

There's something really refreshing about watching this trope be undone. "She never changes who she is the whole time," Whitman said. "I think we’ve all been in those situations where you’re willing to do anything to be less bullied, and then you realize that doesn’t work. It’s about feeling like your best self. I thought that was really a striking thing that I haven’t really seen yet in a movie about young people."

For those non-young people out there, "DUFF" is real slang used by kids these days. HuffPost Teen blogger Ally Del Monte explained the real-life implications of "DUFF" better than anyone over 18 ever could in a recent post:

I understand the premise behind DUFF -- being the person who looks different, and not what some might think is as attractive. They are kept around to make others look more desirable -- but I don't get why it's a thing now. Why would you want to own that you think you're not as good/pretty/lovable/worthy as someone else? Why do we need to have a label? Why can't we just be ourselves and get on with life?

The label is sort of more conceptual than literal designation. It's not about being ugly or fat, per se, but less traditionally attractive. It's yet another marker for "otherness" that we don't need.

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The point of the film is not that Whitman is fat or ugly. She's objectively neither. The emphasis is on defining yourself outside of these labels.

"It could have been anything," Whitman said. "It could have been the friend that doesn’t dress as well or the friend that tells bad jokes at a party. Its like picking something out and making somebody feel like 'You’re this and you deserve to be in this category, because I said so.'"

This message aligns with the happy ending we see in "Mean Girls." Tina Fey's comedy was based on book about friendships (and enemy-ships?) between young women, "Queen Bees And Wannabees" by Rosalind Wiseman. Its cutting wit is grounded in realities about the cruel forms of self-esteem destruction that fill high school hallways.

Whitman has experienced the form of labeling we see in "The DUFF," both while growing up and in her career. If she wants anything out of her performance, it's that it will help make high school a slightly less hellish environment. "I was bullied a lot," Whitman said. "And still there is such a tendency to judge yourself even now ... It was important for me to have something that young girls could watch and feel less alone in that struggle."

"The DUFF" is now out in wide release.

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