The DUFF is exactly what you’re expecting, but it also has charm, wit, and a killer lead performance from Mae Whitman.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
The DUFF follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school senior who has two hot popular best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and wants to fit in but who’s very much an outcast due to her alternately snarky and awkward attitude, love of cult horror cinema, and not being a complete hottie that lecherous boys can drool over. One night at a party, perpetual frenemy and next door neighbour Wes (Robbie Amell) informs Bianca that she is The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her friends which crushes Bianca and the resultant paranoia leads to her breaking up with her friends. Enlisting Wes’ help, as he’s the only one who told her about it, she sets about trying to un-DUFF herself and maybe even ask out hunky dreamboat guitar player Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman).
…so how many spots on your “Teen Comedy Bingo Card” are currently filled in? I think I’ve got a full house on mine, just need a bitchy popular girl who makes it her life’s mission to bring misery to everyone and especially our protagonist (Bella Thorne) and a soundtrack of hip pop music… oh! Oh, I have bingo! I have bingo! Flippancy aside, The DUFF really is exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be from the premise, trailer, poster, name, hell, even an out-of-context screenshot. Will Bianca realise that labels are utterly meaningless unless you prescribe meaning to them? Will she realise that everyone is a DUFF to someone? Will Wes and Bianca seem to bond real close-like during their escapades? Will she make peace with her friends? Will she eventually “own” being the DUFF at the Homecoming dance? If you have ever seen a teen comedy before, you already know every single one of these answers.
That said, I don’t mean this as a dismissive insult towards The DUFF. Originality may be a valued commodity in filmmaking for us critics, in all honesty this film’s lack of it is why I’m not about to bust out the five-star rave review quotes, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of a film’s qualities. For example, I could predict every last beat of The DUFF almost down to the second as I was watching it – including the moment where the slightly self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney who makes the most of what she’s got) would finally offer up some real advice for Bianca – but I still enjoyed the heck out of this movie. Seriously, I’m sat here typing up this review with a tangible bound in my being, the kind that I can only get from seeing a particularly good movie on a nice day.
So why does The DUFF work? Well, there are three particular reasons. The first is that it’s really charming. Visually, director Ari Sandel enjoys deploying social media aesthetics in order to help convey information and such – the opening of the film introduces each of our main cast of characters with little hashtag-accompanied montages to get us up to speed on them, and is incidentally the sole time in the history of mankind where I have and will laugh at the word “amazeballs” – which undoubtedly is going to date the crap out of this film in a few years, but does give it a nice distinct feel of its own instead of just trying to be Mean Girls 2.0 or whatever.
That charm also manifests itself in the script, too. The characters do mostly fulfil the expected archetypes, but they’re still incredibly well-drawn and likeable. The DUFF very smartly casts Bianca’s friends, Jess and Casey, as her real genuine friends with Bianca’s breaking up with them coming purely from her paranoia instead of anything they did. After all, pretty much everybody wants some kind of companionship and the concept of The DUFF – the approachable one who makes their other friends look hotter by comparison, not necessarily fat or ugly – combined with the social pressure cooker that is high school, is just the kind of thing that can cause somebody to misguidedly eject those closest to them from their lives out of paranoia. A lesser film would have made Jess and Casey exactly what Bianca fears them to be, but The DUFF portrays them as genuine friends and that sort of sincerity is manifested in most every character. Hence: charm.
(Incidentally, and I feel I need to mention this before we go further: The DUFF does not condone the idea of The DUFF or that Bianca herself is in any way super ugly or fat. At least to me, anyway. The film very much paints her struggle with DUFF as her own self-esteem issues and fear of not being accepted rather than her becoming more socially acceptable and such. It also never asks you to see her as ugly or in any way undesirable, helped by it making most of the guys who subscribe to that line of thinking as lecherous jackasses whose behaviour is Not OK. That’s my take, at least – others may feel differently and may even be correct since I’m probably the last person who should speak authoritatively on this.)
The script also provides reason number 2 why The DUFF works: wit. Whilst not a gut-buster of a film, and filled with material that again will date this thing substantially in a few years’ time – this is the kind of movie where teenagers are able to make the requisite cyber-bullying video go viral by saying out loud to each other if they want it to “Go viral” before sending it off – this is still a very funny movie, one that roots the majority of its jokes in character work and teenage behaviour at this moment in time. It’s the kind of film that throws around constant references to various social media and teenage aspirations – Bella Thorne’s character’s dream goal in life is to be a reality TV star – but at no point caused me to cringe horrifically at their mentioning because the film doesn’t loudly judge these things or just name-drop in an attempt to be hip. It all feels somewhat natural, even the inevitable “older characters reminiscing about non-technology days” tangent.
There’s a similar naturalness to the jokes. Because it’s not aiming for giant major laughs, the film manages to get a good flow going rarely stopping for an extended sequence of beating a joke into the ground – although there are one or two and they are still rather funny thanks to the third reason that we’re about to get to. This is not really a setpiece comedy movie which means that there are no major laughs, but instead comes with the vastly preferred trade-off of having consistently funny material excellently delivered by a great cast headed up by…
The third and final reason why The DUFF really works: Mae frickin’ Whitman. Now, full disclosure, I adore Mae Whitman and have done for ages. Her resume is the kind that most actresses would kill to have, she does a tonne of voice acting, and she is an extremely talented and relentlessly charming performer. Hell, I was alerted to and excited for this film by the fact that her name was in the lead role and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the opportunity to headline a film. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t waste this chance. Hell, that’s an understatement; she absolutely kills it, she’s phenomenal here!
Whitman, you see, commits. She commits. No matter what the script asks her to do – whether that be snark her way through the requisite voice over, or believably-without-overdoing-it convey Bianca’s emotional upset over social rejection, or spend several minutes strutting about in ill-suited makeover clothes whilst sexually coming onto mannequins in a sequence that should not be anywhere near as funny as it is – she’s there leading the charge, throwing herself into it with palpable gleeful abandon. That natural likeability practically becomes a weapon, actively challenging the viewer not to fall for and root for Bianca, and her comic talents, especially her way with facial expressions, are given ample room to work their magic. In a just world, this would be the performance that launches her into the big time if she wanted it to. Seriously, she friggin’ kills it.
Admittedly, I have seen The DUFF multiple times before, under different names and usually much better than it’s done here. However, I still don’t consider that much of a knock. I have a soft spot for a good charming teen comedy, which is very much what The DUFF is. It has a charm to it that makes the aesthetics, if not the underlying mechanics that power the thing, feel like its own thing, it’s got an enjoyable wit to it that got me laughing at various levels throughout most all of its 101 minutes, and it has a powerhouse Mae Whitman performance backed up by strong supporting work – particularly by Alison Janney, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell. I went in wanting pretty much all of that and got almost precisely that. It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s a teen comedy, and when those are good they can be really good.
Or to put it another way, it’s a film that makes prominent usage of the song “#selfie” and the rest of the film is so good and so enjoyable that I didn’t immediately want to barge into the projector room and set the place ablaze. I very much class The DUFF as a win, in my book.