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‘The Duff’ creators pay homage to John Hughes

By Staff | Feb 25, 2015

No matter the decade, a percentage of young people enter an in-between coming of age period defined blandly as adolescence or more dramatically as the terrible teens. Parents struggle as their former child approaches adulthood. Often, their bodies mature faster than their emotions, logic and wisdom. They indirectly allow others to dictate identities.

Social categories (jock or princess, mean girl or geek) slam concurrently overshadowing educational aspects of high school. Cliques form defining social popularity. Athleticism nearly always guarantees a free pass into more elitist groups consisting of the presumed best looking, most desirable students.

Teens confront these unstated labels through anger, depression, acceptance, fear, and inner growth.

Films depicting high school and college years have tendencies to accent extreme thrills and hormones (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, “American Pie,” and “Dazed and Confused”). Some utilize an ugly duckling to beautiful princess transformation. Few successfully turn anguish pains into unrestrained bittersweet laughs and tears.

Director Ari Sandel (“West Bank Story,” “Aim High”), and producers Mary Viola and McG (“We Are Marshall,” “Terminator Salvation,” “This Means War”) have brought an uproariously kind, gentle and subtle trouncing of teen rites of passage following bright and friendly Bianca’s (Mae Whitman) positive and negative journey coping with school social classifications. Described as an “everyman (every woman)” by Sandel, her self-esteem shatters when at a party she’s called the group “duff,” in an otherwise band of hotties with whom she hangs.

Based on a novel by the same title, “The Duff” = designated ugly fat friend. Absorbing those words plunges the otherwise independent and steadfast girl into a period of shaking a label out of her head. She initially yields momentarily to a stereotypical “transformation” experience, by symbolically taking her hair out of a bun, putting on a new dress and adding lots of makeup to win the (wrong) boy of her dreams.

But Bianca quickly veers to anti-conformity realizing the new look has essentially backfired. She goes into what Viola called “an invisible” stage, believing she can “dress as drably or as crazy as she wants.” This leads to what we will politely call an interesting day at school.

Confidence ajar, she “sees herself as the lowest” on the school totem pole, Sandel explained to Grafitti in a telephone interview: “Everyone has their insecurities, whether its their size, their height, athleticism or coordination,” Sandel said.

However, Bianca’s dicing of conformity becomes one stage in navigating her rite of passage. “The Duff, produced by Wonderland Sound and Vision for their studio partner CBS Films, focuses on her journey of “learning to be comfortable with who you are and not let the other people define you or let the people you are surrounded by define you. She has to discover who she is and where she is going. You don’t define you by whom you are sitting next to,” Sandel explained.

Exploring group dynamics, the film’s story reaches beyond body image perceptions of ugly and beautiful, athletic and awkward, or wealth and economically challenged.

“If you have five supermodels (in a group), one will be perceived not as pretty as the others,” Sandel said.

Or, as Viola puts it, Bianca learns to become “the best version of herself” by “not comparing herself to others” Once she stops doing that “everything else seems to fall in place.”

After exploring how these youthful labels apply to “designations applicable to any age, whether high school, college, 20-somethings to 60-somethings, Sandel, Viola and this writer hit upon a comparative filmmaking icon – John Hughes.

Hughes wrote directed and produced, stories of ordinary young people comically enlightened by their academic and social introductions to reality in such films as “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink,”

“Those are the best (teen coming of age movies),” the two filmmakers jointly admitted.

Viola, who has became McG’s producing partner at Wonderland Sound and Vision, stated “(Hughes is) my reason for going into filmmaking. He did all the jock movies when I was growing up.”

Those films were sincere, endearing, funny and contained pitch-perfect dialogue. The reverence to Hughes underscores “The Duff’s” tone.

Sandel and Viola want the message of “The Duff” to be subtle and humorous but not lost in laughter.

Hughes had that same tact. He placed average guys and gals in significant short term life decisions that may mold a reoccurring high school, college or adult principle or, simply, one that motivates them past a temporary teen crisis – no date to the prom or a forgotten birthday.

Artistic, rebellious, strong-willed and feisty leading ladies (ala Molly Ringwald) often depicted the odd gal outside the system (representing, many film scholars now say, John Hughes, himself a forever teen).

Not unlike Bianca in some aspects, Ringwald’s red-headed “Pretty in Pink” character Andie dreamed of a perfect stunning prom dress and a perfect popular date. However, Andie is from a less affluent home and, even once the pair are dating, Andie conceals where she lives. As for her spectacular dress which she could not afford, Andie has a gift for sewing and networking. Though her popular date goes back on his promise to take Andie to the prom, she proudly walks into the gym wearing an original dress where she is met by her loyal best friend Duckie (Jon Cryer).

Attendance at her prom demonstrates independence, determination and the confidence for Andie to be herself and let serendipity determine the evening’s outcome. Ringwald’s character adapts to the personal crisis and her survival leads to personal growth.

Returning to “The Duff,” both filmmakers acknowledge high school has changed little in terms of cliques. Viola notes, “We have a nod to ‘Pretty in Pink’ in ‘The Duff.'” Can you find it?

Whitman is a “funny, well-grounded” actress, Sandel said. “By casting her, we said this is a real movie with real actors, the characters take themselves seriously. The message is important,” though not heavy-handed.

Although remaining relatively true to the young female teen authored source material, the filmakers “wanted to make a movie that wasn’t just for girls,” Sandel said.

“There are plenty of guys having body dysmorphic issues, too,” Viola stressed. She called “The Duff”, an example of a film that “empowers people to realize there is so much more than looks, status or popularity. Ari did a great job (as there is) a lot of levity. It feels like you are enjoying while learning something, which is one of the hardest achievements in film making.”

Whitman, known for her roles in “Parenthood,” “Arrested Development” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”; Bella Thorne (Disney’s “Shake It Up”); Robbie Amell (“The Flash”); Skyler Samuels (“American Horror Story”); Allison Janney (“American Beauty”); Bianca A. Santos (“Ouija”) and Ken Jeong (“The Hangover”) star in the CBS Films/Wonderland Sound and Vision production.