Movie Mayhem – McFarland, USA/The DUFF

No matter how much we may want to deny it, we all categorize, label and judge people, neighborhoods and entertainment based solely on appearance; doing so is simply human nature — a subconscious reaction based on past events and preconceptions formed through our interactions with others. A lot of people are capable of overcoming their prejudices and give someone or something the benefit of the doubt, however, when someone uses their biases as a latent survival instinct or to blatantly hurt someone else, whether physically or verbally, it can lead to dangerous consequences that more than likely will never be reversed. You really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and two films, McFarland, USA and The DUFF, which on the surface are vastly different (causing many to judge them based on their labels), are actually very similar in how they deal with this very subject.

Based on the trailer alone, McFarland, USA is immediately labeled a feel-good Disney sports film — which it is. But more than that, it’s a carefully crafted study of how two societal groups traditionally separated by race, money and power perceive one another, and how those perceptions are based mostly in circumstance and upbringing. In other words, neither group is any better or worse than the other; in the end, we’re all human looking to become more than we are, no matter where that struggle might lead us.

The first act is full of snap judgments from both sides of the fence. After Jim White (Kevin Costner) is fired from his coaching job at an elite high school for throwing a shoe at a player (causing the cleat to cut the player’s face), he is forced to move his family to McFarland, California, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood north of Bakersfield. At one point, Jim’s youngest daughter, Jamie (Elsie Fisher) asks if they’re in Mexico. When Jim takes the family to a restaurant on their first night there, he encounters a group of friends who by all appearances are nothing but a gang of thugs looking for trouble. The fear he and his family display is apparent as the incident ignites both his survival and protective instincts. They are out of their comfort zone and it’s understandably hard for them to see this community as anything but intimidating. On the other hand, the majority of the community only see a privileged white family encroaching on their structured society. Even the head coach of the football team can’t tolerate Jim’s “attitude” when he keeps a player from returning to the field during his first game.

It’s only when Jim decides to put together a team of cross-country runners and build them into a championship contender do both sides begin to respect the culture and upbringing of their respective cultures and come to realize how wrong they were about each other. Jim learns how to become a better father by putting together a quinceñera for his eldest daughter, Julie (Morgan Saylor) after forgetting her birthday, as well as a better man when he goes to work in the fields to help a couple members of his team harvest lettuce; his team, including the captain, Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts), learn that if they truly want to succeed and break through the societal glass ceiling, they can’t let their current mentality (or their current situations) drag them down. As long as you strive to be better and are willing to work hard to get what you want, the sky’s the limit no matter who you are or where you come from.

The DUFF, on the other hand, is classified as your typical high school comedy, complete with references to past high-school movies (and scores of pop-culture references) and the required list of modern day labels. Like Mean Girls and She’s All That before it, The DUFF plays devil’s advocate when it comes to defining and examining these labels, turning its focus on how destructive they can be, and how someone can turn hateful speech and bullying into something much more positive.

Mae Whitman plays Bianca, an average girl in a sea of wanna-be reality stars and appearance-obsessed tools who learns early on that she is considered the DUFF among her two best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) — because no one has the urge to hook up with her, she becomes the approachable, easy to talk to gatekeeper between her friends and potential suitors. Before seeing the movie, it seemed odd that Whitman would be considered ugly or fat, since she really is neither, but as the film explains as quickly as it jumps on the #hastagbandwagon, the DUFF isn’t necessarily fat or ugly, and it isn’t relegated to the female persuasion. Every group, in fact, includes at least one odd-man out, who fits in for the sole purpose of “fitting in”.

This realization pushes Bianca to break away from this sordid designation and win over the guy of her dreams (Nick Eversman) just in time for prom. With the help of her long-time neighbor, Wesley (Robbie Amell), Bianca breaks away from her comfort zone in order to prove (to whom) that she deserves respect for being a smart, funny young woman who just happens to dress comfortably (as opposed to slutty) and likes to watch old movies instead of hang out at the mall. Everything about her attempts to rise above her designation were awkward but relateable, and only makes you feel closer to who she really is under the fake skin she tries to paint herself under.

But with every new step, there is one person looking to drag her back to her rightful place among the high school hierarchy, and that is Madison (Bella Thorne), a narcissist to the Nth degree who doesn’t like anyone challenging her position as queen bee of the garden. Keeping the weak in their place is her drug of choice and she’s willing to hurt anyone who gets in the way of her perceived happiness. But no matter how embarrassing or uncomfortable or depressing her transition is, the lesson Bianca learns through Madison’s scornful acts — and the realization that not all things are what they seem — help her understand that labels are only masks people give others to make themselves feel better. This idea holds great weight for me, personally, and I like how they dealt with how labels shouldn’t ever become a designation of who you are; it doesn’t matter what other people may think, all that matters is staying true to yourself.

I do have to say, I felt I had to go to the dentist after watching these movies due to all of their sugary sweetness. Neither film spends a whole lot of time digging their heels into the more tragic aspects of their respective themes; even the darker, more dramatic moments are dealt with as if they were on a cloud of marshmallow watching the Care Bears sing “Happy”. But that’s just fine — they aren’t meant to be anything but lightly buttered feel-good entertainment. Both Costner and Whitman carry their respective films well and are quite capable of grounding the material in a reality we’re all too familiar with. In some ways, both McFarland, USA and The DUFF are the designated ugly fat friend to their more popular, “prettier” predecessors, but they still work because they know exactly who they are and don’t try to be anything but heartfelt lessons in life that every teen (and some adults) should really pay attention to.

My Grade (both films): A-

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Next week, new movies include The Lazarus Effect and Focus. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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