Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Screenplay Review - The DUFF (Guest Review)

Today's screenplay asks that eternal pestering question that never seems to go away no matter how hard you try. No, not "What is the meaning of life?" But "Are you a DUFF (a designated ugly fat friend)?"

I'm sure all of you are just as devastated as I am that Ben picked Courtney, but I figure we'll get over it at some point.  In the meantime, I'm calling on my British buddy Anthony Jackson to write us today's review.  He's madly in love with teen high school movies so he's the perfect reviewer for this material. Editing the Scriptshadow Book continues to occupy all of my free time but hopefully it will pay off soon!  Also, Twit-Pitch (pitch me your script on Twitter) IS coming, so be ready.  It's still probably 2-3 weeks away and will happen on a Saturday, so you better be finishing those scripts of yours!  I'll have plenty of announcements on the site as it gets closer.  But for now, I'll let Anthony take over...

GENRE: Teen Romantic Comedy
PREMISE: An “invisible” high school girl discovers that she is the DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) and sets out to change things up for the homecoming dance.
ABOUT: CBS films acquired this property last year. Writer Josh Cagan has previously had success with the teen film, BandSlam. DUFF also made its way into last year’s Black List, finishing near the bottom of the pack with 6 votes.
WRITER: Josh A. Cagan. Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger
DETAILS: 103 pages – 2011 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

American teen comedies are my guilty pleasure. Growing up in England, me and my best friend spent far too much time watching and re-watching American Pie, Road Trip, Slackers, even Get Over It (that weird movie with Sisqo. We were big fans of the Thong Song too).

I live in California now and having attended an American college for a year and discovered that teen parties are waaaay better on film that in real life, I’ve cast aside my doe-eyed reverence of all things teen and adopted a much more critical eye… which is a fancy way of saying that even though I know teen movies are totally unrealistic I still watch and love them. So I opened up DUFF hoping to be transported to that wonderful movie world of jocks, nerds, hot babes, cool parties and, of course, ridiculous teen sex lives. Was I disappointed? Let’s check out the plot first…

Bianca is a seventeen-year-old girl who doesn’t conform to the high school pressures of looking and acting cool. She doesn’t wear make-up. She’s a straight-A student. She shops at thrift stores (and not in a cool hipster way). However, these social faux pas do not prevent her from having two extremely hot and cool friends: Jessica (super-model style) and Casey (indie-rock hot librarian). When Bianca’s not managing her hot friends’ calendars, she likes to take some time out to spy on the dreamy Toby; a feminist dude who plays guitar and wears leather.

Bianca tags along with Jessica and Casey to a party and is approached by the school quarterback and overall clichéd dumb hot guy, Wesley. You see that even though Bianca isn’t cool enough to feature on anyone’s radar, she conveniently lives next door to Wesley so that he actually knows her name. More than that he wants her help. He needs intel on Jessica and Casey. Bianca explains that it’s not her job to dole out info on her best friends to perverts so Wesley, subtle as an autistic six year old, informs Bianca that it is actually her job because she’s a DUFF. She’s there to make her hot friends look hotter and assist in other hot people getting access to them. He tries to numb the sucker punch by highlighting all the other DUFFs at the party, male and female, but the damage is done.

After much soul-searching, Bianca decides to test Wesley’s theory and ignores Jessica and Casey. Sure enough, without those two around, she quickly becomes invisible. Bianca tries to make the most out of this invisibility, doing and dressing however she wants, but ultimately what she wants is to ask Toby to homecoming. However, because she’s spent all of high school assisting Jessica and Casey, she’s never developed the social skills to actually talk to him. So she returns to dim-witted Wesley, who is failing science and facing the prospect of being kicked off the football team, and suggests a deal. He teaches her to be social and she’ll make sure he passes science. But will their deal develop into something more and will Bianca ever be able to kick the label “DUFF?”

The concept behind DUFF is actually pretty good. It takes a well-worn teen staple – the ugly ducking transformation – and puts a new spin on it. There’s a clever line in the movie where Wesley tells Bianca that every group has a DUFF and if you don’t know who it is then it’s probably you. This idea is the foundation for the story. Bianca has no idea how much of a mess she is and this gets our sympathy. High school kids are cruel. However, having created this new angle on a familiar story, DUFF goes on to tell a terribly clichéd and uninspired tale. I’m talking every teen movie beat/scene you’ve ever watched. A dressing room ‘let’s try on new styles’ montage. The ‘catch my crush with the girl I hate’ chestnut. All leading up to the, you guessed it, dramatic finale at the school dance. These clichés can work if you put a new spin on them (look at Easy A or Mean Girls) but DUFF plays them straight and it suffers for it.

The cliché also drips into the characters. Wesley as the dumb jock is almost painful. Cagan actually tries to do something different halfway through the script, revealing Wesley’s dorky side. This becomes one of the ways he and Bianca connect but there is something very manufactured about the whole thing. The attempt to round him out falls short because I don’t buy that this is his character. One minute he’s punching out anyone who says anything bad about Bianca and the next he’s moping about being with the school hot girl because “that’s what he’s supposed to do.” I’m sorry but I can’t feel sorry for a guy with these kinds of problems and if I can’t empathize then this kind of movie collapses.

Bianca is better as the smart and sarcastic protagonist but even this gets old. It's almost as if it's accepted that if someone is not physically attractive then they have to be witty. Her goal of asking out Toby is reached pretty quickly but is dealt with well as it is used to springboard the story to the bigger question; can Bianca comes to terms with who she is. This issue is actually dealt with pretty well but it certainly doesn’t re-make the wheel.

Another major issue with script is tone. I called it a ‘Teen Movie’ in the introduction but ‘Tween Movie’ might be a better description. Cagan’s previous film, BandSlam, looks to be exactly this (I admit, I haven’t seen it). DUFF revolves around a group of seventeen year olds but their dialogue and actions feel much younger. It’s a diluted high school where no one curses and although sex may be hinted at, making out is as far as anything ever goes. The tone affects some of the story choices and certainly the ending (I won’t spoil it but needless to say everything gets wrapped up with a bow on it). There’s nothing wrong with this type of movie and they’re certainly popular… but when I read the logline for DUFF I was expecting something closer to Easy A and what I got was High School Musical without the music.

I don’t want to completely bash the script because despite its childish tone and cliché choices, there was some clever stuff. Cagan uses some cool stylistic techniques to suggest the social media influence in high school, and I can definitely see that stuff being utilized. The side-plot with Bianca’s Mom, who uses the five stages of grief to counsel people on any problem (loss of pet, male baldness etc), was funny and incorporated into the story well.

Ultimately though, DUFF is not something me, or my younger seventeen year-old self, could ever watch and think “Wow, I want to be somewhere like that”… which is really all a teen movie needs to achieve.

[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I Learned: Beware of false advertising. It’s been said before on this blog but it’s definitely worth reiterating. Tell the story you pitch. This means plot, characters AND tone. The term Designated Ugly Fat Friend is obviously mean and a little crude and suggests that what will follow will also be mean and a little crude. DUFF was almost the opposite of that. If the script had been called ‘The Invisible Girl,’ I would have had a completely different set of expectations and may have possibly been less frustrated with the outcome. (Carson note: This “What I Learned” is heartily endorsed by Carson!)