The DUFF – Film Review

It feels like it could be a film from the late 90s. Surely every American (and for that matter non-American) teenager knows what a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is now days.

There are plenty of films they could make with more modern acronyms like BAE (before anyone else) – a teen friendship movie starring Maisie Williams, Shailene Woodley, Chloe Grace Moretz and a pair of used overalls; OTP (one true pairing) – a romantic comedy where Justin Bieber runs a zoo; TBT (throwback Thursday) – a body swap movie with Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, where no one notices the difference; or YOLO (you only live once) – a road trip where Jennifer Love Hewitt and Molly Ringwald travel the world doing extreme sports.

The DUFF feels like a massive attempt to modernise Mean Girls. It ends up being a mere template of the teen movie genre with all the usual archetypes including Ken Jeong as the mild mannered mentor, a bunch of stick thin young models as the school bullies and chiselled-jawed Robbie Amell as the school jock – despite the opening narration stating “for generations of high-schoolers you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket-case; but times have changed”. Apparently the producers didn’t get their own memo.

The only markers suggesting it is any different from older teen movies is the heavy handed use of handheld mobile devices, social media and Duckface – a phrase Allison Janney uses in this film, proving she is the most hip character in a film that already looks dated.

Mae Whitman (a wonderful comedic actress from Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and television series Parenthood) stars in the title role of designated ugly fat friend. Not since America Ferrera was cast as Ugly Betty, has such an attractive young starlet been dressed in ill-fitting clothes and deemed to be not only fat and ugly, but completely devoid of social skills (oh, and of course the only asset is they are highly intelligent, because there’s a direct correlation between deformity and intellect).

Where are the real ugly fat people? The people whose self-esteem is left in tatters after twelve years of institutionalised education. The victims of school bullying who are haunted throughout their adult life by their childhood persecution. The people so fat their school uniform needs to be altered. The people whose stomach is continually spilling over their trouser bottoms. The person with a lazy eye. The people who have panic attacks talking to the opposite sex and never end up kissing anyone, let alone the school pin-up. The people who cry themselves to sleep. The person whose hair is full of split-ends. The people who come last in everything. The invisible people. Where are they? Why aren’t they the protagonists in these films?

If you want a film full of neat happy endings with a romanticised moral message about cyber-bullying then this is your film. It certainly has its moments and the highly predictable plot makes for good veg-out viewing, with a heart-felt message about being yourself. However, if you want the real fall-out of teenage years watch the documentary American Teen.

Film Review – Whiplash

Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) does a lot of shouting in his classroom, during the film Whiplash. In the firing line is drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller).

Namby Pamby naysayers will discredit the value of shouting at children to make them achieve greatness. Even the characters in the film attempt to dethrone Fletcher, from his position as a jazz instructor at the illustrious Shaffer Conservatory, because of his aggressive approach. But the proof is in the pudding. Both Fletcher and his student Neiman fulfil their potential, and it’s not undue to the extensive bouts of yelling and expletives spilling from Fletcher’s mouth box.

Sure, having a calm and pleasant approach when talking to students will usually produce positive outcomes. But rarely exceptional results. There’s nothing like a bit of screaming in someone’s face to illicit the ‘I’m going to prove you wrong’ response. This appears to be the general tone of interaction between the two protagonists for the majority of the film -sometimes with the defiant quest for approval going both ways.

It’s not to say that Fletcher and Neiman are functional human beings. Both of them sit somewhere on a sociopathic spectrum. But their relationships with other people do not need to be healthy, because they have their music. The film certainly panders to the cliché that geniuses are introverted types who obsess over their artwork at the cost of everything else. The literal blood, sweat and tears from these characters adds to the cacophonous musicality of the drums and Fletcher’s shouting that carry this film. There are points at which the expletives become lyrics and almost merge into the percussive rhythms being smacked out on the Myler drumheads.

Whiplash is the dark evil cousin of Mr Holland’s Opus. It is a no-holds-barred look at the quest for greatness. It shows that there is a place for a red-faced outburst at children (and adults for that matter) when pushing them to their limits. The shouting does not come from a place of hate, vengeance or malice. It comes from the emotional core of a person wanting to drive their subjects to their ultimate position on the highest podium.

You must shout to be heard above the white noise of the masses.

Film Review – Night at The Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Let’s talk about the parenting skills of Larry (Ben Stiller) in the film Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

His son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) is completing his final exams and about to apply to universities. So when Larry returns home at 3am from a work event, he finds his son holding a house party with over 30 of his mates. It’s a family film, so the debauchery extends to a few polite greetings when Larry enters and the consumption of non-alcoholic punch. But it is still 3am in the morning. You would think Larry should have at least sent his son to stay with his mother for the night, or kept tabs on his son earlier than 3am.

It doesn’t get much better once Larry shuts down the party. Instead of accepting a stern talking to from his father, Nick approaches the situation of cleaning up the apartment by asking his father to fund his gap year and saying, “Let’s call it a night. Let’s not even clean up, right. Let’s come back tomorrow. Let’s reboot the whole energy; the whole tone of this puppy. And we’ll kill it man.”

Far be it for me to tell Larry how to raise his child, but you would think this might be a good time to cut Nick’s allowance off and ground him for a couple of months until his exams are complete. Instead Larry suggests that Nick clean up the mess and they’ll finish the conversation tomorrow.

He doesn’t finish the conversation tomorrow. He takes his son with him on a work trip to London to assist in returning the tablet of Ahkmenrah to its rightful place at the British Museum. Obviously Larry and company didn’t do much research about how the British Museum historically garnered its worldly collection of artefacts, otherwise he’d have questioned why the rightful place for an Ancient Egyptian magical rock was in a class cabinet in the middle of London.

Then, as if the makers of this film haven’t demonstrated enough average parenting skills, the film begins to depict a substantial amount of untruths about the British Museum. These incorrect facts are not just a couple of under-researched history notes, but substantial redesigns to the layout of the museum and the addition of a number of items that do not appear in the museum. The most notable being the inclusion of dinosaur bones, which are housed at the Natural History Museum, not the British Museum.

The British Museum has dedicated an entire page of its website to clearing up some of the confusion. The most damning point made relates to Sir Lancelot being an entirely fictional character. Yet in this film, Lancelot is portrayed as an armoured Downton Abbey dropout – a most racial generalisation. It’s no wonder he aims to sabotage the entire operation.

The redemption, for what is actually quite a comedic jaunt, is the concluding scenes with Larry and Nick, where the son explains that he’s going to Ibiza to pursue his career as a DJ. They both state their love for each other, hug and walk off into the snow. It’s heart-warming to know that when you’re losing direction in life, you can always convince your parents you’ll find meaning by DJ-ing a seedy nightclub until 6am on a Spanish island.

Film Review – Paper Planes

The fresh faced naivety and optimism of a student teacher is soon beaten out. There is a flashing neon target on their head asking for students to cause them no end of grief. Idealistic aspirations of ‘making a difference’ and inspiring children to ‘follow them dreams’ soon become incinerated by the inferno generated for the mere self-preservation required in the classroom.

Despite this, Paper Planes insists on providing a fancifully functional classroom environment in this coming of age piece about aeronautical origami. If we begin by looking at Pete Rowsthorn’s portrayal of an enthusiastic classroom teacher, we get a picture of how good communication with children works. He is creative and fun, while still remaining aloof and being a disciplinarian. Case in point is his collection of mobile phone devices in a sombrero. In contrast Rowsthorn’s student teacher Jethro arrives from Melbourne with too much smiling going on. This is not to say I didn’t go into my first classroom with a big enthusiastic grin on my face. The difference was the grin was smeared off within minutes as my students misinterpreted my expression for weakness.

Paper Planes 2

In this film, the students continue to respond positively to the student teacher’s elated mood. They are cooperative and show no sign of cutting this inspirational nincompoop down at the knees. Then, in a most unconvincing portrayal of pedagogy, he introduces his first lesson with the immortal lines, “Today I’m going to teach you how to make the perfect plane”. I mean what lesson was this? Where was the educational value? Why was he using fresh paper from the packet, instead of recycling scrap paper?

If a real teacher was to pull this kind of stunt on their first day of practicum, they’d be lynched by the class, and marched to the principal’s office by their mentor. Additionally, and I say this from experience, you would not want to demonstrate to students how to fold something that could become a major disruption to your class. A sheep at the abattoir would not show a butcher how to sharpen a blade; a mouse would not invite Mr Tibbles around for tea; and a priest would not invite a convicted felon to give a guest homily at mass.

Perhaps it would have been more convincing for the paper plane session to have been conducted by a touring group of plane enthusiasts, rather than the student teacher who should have been conducting a handwriting lesson.

The message of the film is positive. And if we suspend disbelief in regards to the lacking nature of behaviour management strategies, the film certainly has adult characters who encourage children to dream big. I only wish the students I have taught had been as compliant as those in the film. Maybe I’d have produced a few more high achievers who ended up competing in international competitions.

Paper Planes was certainly a good reminder that every now and then it may be worth going back to my original doe-eyed views of education and how a little bit of honest enthusiasm can affect massive change.

The Tribe – Film Review

Clicking of a pen, drumming of fingers on the desk, sliding of a chair leg, whispering, zipping of a pencil case, clearing of a throat. These are all things that throw a teacher off their game, causing disruption to the flow of their lessons. Or so I thought. But watching The Tribe, a film where the dialogue is communicated completely through signing, my opinion of what amounts to disruption was challenged. Even in complete silence major disruption can be caused.

There is a scene early on in the film where new student Sergey (Grygoriy Fesenko) enters the classroom at his Ukrainian boarding school. Upon entering the room, one of the other students immediately begins to sign to the other students. The student strides his chair, legs spread wide, one elbow resting on the desk, and body leaning slouched upon the seat. And in an instant I realise that it’s never the sound itself that creates disruption; it’s the attitude.

The teacher turns her attention away from Sergey and stares daggers at the teen who is kicking back like a real ‘Mr Coolio’. She tells him to be quiet. He continues to slouch, while spinning his pen nonchalantly in his hand. Again, complete defiance is communicated without a single noise.

Sergey sits down and the teacher begins her geography lesson. Again she is interrupted by the class clown. She requests he stand up. She negotiates with him, comes to some sort of agreement and then he sits down again. The moment she turns to examine the map at the front of the room, he is signing again. The lights flash and it’s time for break.

This scene alone was a revelation for me in regards to my own teaching. Whenever I teach I am on a never ending quest to reach a state of near silence in my classrooms. As though silence will bring about an equilibrium for learning. The Tribe threw that in my face and proved to me that even in a situation where nothing is heard, there are plenty of other ways to rebel. Even if I could sign, I would not work at that boarding school. Not just because of the slouching pen-twirling teenagers, but more due to the violence, drugs and sex that infiltrates the corridors of the dormitories and spills onto the streets.

Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has created an insane community of characters and situations in The Tribe. Despite claims by some critics that this is a silent film, I feel it’s not. The characters are signing with their hands. So there is communication and dialogue occurring. It’s a film with-out subtitles, which presumably means there is another level of depth to the film that would be accessed by those who understand Ukrainian sign language. But for the rest of us, the slow reveal of the plot through gestures and action is what makes this film masterful.

The performance by Grygoriy Fesenko and his co-stars Yana Novikova and Roza Babiy is thrilling. The cast of this film were unknown non-actors who were trained up on set and developed a set of intriguingly broken characters, not limited by their hearing impairment. There are few scenes where their lack of hearing directly affects the action of the film.

The Tribe is no Hollywood teen movie. If an allusion were to be made, then perhaps it is Mean Girls on acid, with a Ukrainian Michael Cera as the lead. While the situations in the film are mostly extreme, it should be an eye-opener for teachers who may wonder why students turn up to class withdrawn or angry. It is a wake-up call for parents who think their children spend time riding horses and playing hockey at boarding school. It will give students some dark and perverted ideas for entrepreneurialism and revenge. For the rest of you it can remind you to read the world through what you see, not just what you hear.