The rites and rituals of returning to school are taking place this month and that means we can stop watching “Jaws” and start watching “The Breakfast Club.” This is the high school film against which all high school films are judged and it lays out the rules for that genre. All must contain a voice-over, a makeover and a pithy explanation of school social hierarchies.
Of course, you tend to love most the film that came out when you yourself were in high school. Therefore, my favorite is “Clueless,” a witty modernization of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” “Clueless” looks at high school structure through the eyes of a popular insider, rather than a cool loner taking on the establishment.
What sets “Clueless” apart from the films that followed is that it is basically good hearted. Cher wants to “use her popularity for good” and, while she learns that people are happier when they aren’t ruled by social groups, her mission is to include, not exclude, the new girl. While this film is ludicrous and hilarious, it is also sweet.
Subsequent high school films, however, up the ante on the man’s inhumanity to man theme, specifically girls’ inhumanity to girls. And since it was written by genius Tina Fey, “Mean Girls” is every bit the classic “Clueless” is. Each generation seems to make its onscreen high schoolers more cruel, and Rachel McAdams’ mean queen is a villainess on par with Maleficent.
“The DUFF” is the latest entry into this category, and while its characters might rebel against rules, the film follows them every step of the way. It also follows the trend of heightened cruelty, and technology allows things to escalate even further. Rumors are the time-honored way to hurt a classmate, and the digital format makes the process a snap. Too many comedies rely on cruelty as their mode, I think, and it puts the viewer in the position of the bad guy, since, while the message of the movie is that it’s bad to laugh at others, we also get to do that.
The main pleasures of this cookie-cutter comedy come from star Mae Whitman, a charming and self-deprecating high school senior whose best friends happen to be two gorgeous and popular girls. When her neighbor, a childhood pal turned hot jock, matter of factly informs her she’s the Designated Ugly Fat Friend in her trio, she lashes out.
This leads to the requisite makeover, when Whitman puts herself in the hands of her cute neighbor because he’s so likable and she wants to learn from him. Naturally, she learns to be herself. Even though I was excited to see Whitman, who of course I love forever because she was Ann Veal on “Arrested Development” and because she’s the perfect girl anti-hero, the plot was strictly by the books.
The inclusion of hashtags did little to update this little film, which has plenty of charming, funny moments, but ultimately becomes preachy. Both the cruelty of the students and the happiness of the ending felt beyond the realm of possibility to me. If you’re going to make a satire, you have to go all the way. Which brings me back to “Clueless.”