I recently saw a teen film, The Duff, which is about this girl who realizes that in her girl posse she’s kind of the ugly one. The movie was charming, as I expected, but what I did not expect was how many teen movie tropes it played completely straight (as in, without even blinking an eye about how used-up they were). Now I am probably the last person who ought to write about this, because I too have used many of these tropes. Bum going too anyway, and I hope this criticism will be taken in the gentle spirit in which it’s intended.
- Antagonist is a bitchy girl who’s mean for no reason – Yeah there’re plenty of people in high school who’re mean just as a form of asserting their own dominance. But in this day and age, you’ve got to go deeper than that. Mean Girls is 12 years old! If Mean Girls had had a baby, she would be about to become a Mean Girl herself. At this point the bitchy girl thing just seems a little lazy. Also it can border on sexist, since you’re kind of just saying, “Welp, some girls are like that!”
- Makeover montage – Lots of teens dress like total slobs, and lots of teens would look a lot better if they dressed more nicely. What was actually nice about the Duff is that they didn’t pretend her montage had made her an order of magnitude more attractive. This isn’t like the Princess Diaries or She’s All That, where the heroine goes from nerd to stunner. And in her montage, the focus was more on loosening her up and making her act more naturally and more confidently. But still, the makeover montage feels tired. There’s got to be a better way of showing us that this person is changing.
- The midpoint of the movie centers upon some sort of public humiliation — In so many movies, at around the midpoint or two thirds point, something will happen: the teen will do something embarrassing that’s caught on video. Or they’ll mess up while in a play. Or they’ll accidentally get broadcast over the PA saying something pathetic. And it’ll destroy they’re reputation. This is also really understandable. Teen movies are usually centered around very private stories: one person’s hopes and dreams. Putting them at the center of some broader fiasco is a way of putting the stakes and making their problem seem more important. But it often feels like a way of sidestepping the core conflict of the story. Here the problem is that this girl, the protagonist, feels like a core part of this trio of friends, but to the rest of the world she’s only an adjunct. Any way of upping the stakes ought to somehow involve that disparity between self-image and public image. But what happens (the bitchy girl shares an embarrassing youtube video of her) doesn’t really seem to matter, because it doesn’t involve her two friends at all. It’s a way of waving your hands and making conflict in order to power the book. OF course, this is also something that I did at the midpoint of MY book, Enter Title Here, so I am completely guilty of this one.
- Tired cultural commentary about social media — In The Duff at one point the protagonist breaks up with her friends by unfollowing them from a bunch of social networks. At another point, the principal tries to make some statement about cyberbullying. It’s all a little bit shopworn. Sure, kids use social media a lot. So do adults. It’s a vehicle for story, but it’s not STORY itself. What matters should be the things they do or say online, not the fact that they’re happening online. It’s like if there were a bunch of movies from the fifties where kids were like, “Let’s do things in our cars! Because we have cars! And cars take you places fast! Cars can be dangerous, you know!” Like, alright, we get it. They have cars now. They didn’t used to. But it’s not a particularly interesting point.
- The climax of the story is a speech or article or video or underground newspaper released by the protagonist — Again, I am very guilty of this. The climax of my novel is a speech that Reshma makes at her commencement. But it still should not be done! Mostly because of the way this statement can’t help but feel preach and overpackaged. Almost always it takes the themes of the story and puts them into a trite, condensed form (adult movies, particularly comedies, do this all the time: see this year’s Bad Mom’s.) Like, come on, movies need to find subtler ways of telling us that their protagonists have grown up.
- Too much focus on the annual rituals of the average American public high school – The big third-act focus of The Duff, we always knew (because it was heavily foreshadowed), was going to be the Homecoming dance. Where, of course, the selection of the Homecoming King and Queen proves to be a major setpiece. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. I suppose Homecoming is really important to plenty of high schoolers. But after awhile it becomes visually boring. We’ve all seen enough wavery lights and teen girls dancing in wedge heels and short dresses. There’s no new take on the Homecoming dance. One of the things I was happiest about in my book was that I left out Prom and Homecoming. What’s funny is that there are other rituals which almost never show up. Like you rarely see the Senior Prank or the Senior Skip Day. And you rarely see a movie that dares (as did Dazed and Confused, for instance) to just invent a tradition.