LIGHT SPOILERS FOLLOW
In The Duff, a new high-school comedy that is justifiably being compared to Mean Girls, Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) just wants to fit in. In the opening scene, she introduces the audience to her two best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), both of whom are considered two of the sexiest girls in her school. But Bianca doesn’t let us forget that these girls aren’t her. She introduces herself next, knowingly unsexy and rocking a certain charm that will appeal only to lovers of the outcasts. As she makes her way down the hallway in a flannel shirt and bib overalls, she spouts on and on about how she is best of friends with these two girls. She also blabs about how she can’t get the nerve to talk to her crush, Tony (Nick Eversman), a band geek with a mane of blonde hair that he can’t seem to stop running his own fingers through.
Bianca becomes self-conscious when her next-door neighbor/longtime friend Wes (Robbie Amell of The Flash fame) unintentionally breaks the heart-shattering news that she may in fact be the “DUFF” of her little trio of friends. DUFF stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” in case you didn’t know, and the movie doesn’t let you forget that, sometimes requiring characters to repeat the acronym and its meaning numerous times to the point where it becomes cringe-worthy. I guess that’s the price we have to pay when we get a movie that has an acronymic title.
But Bianca is neither ugly nor fat, but this is a rule of the term itself. The DUFF doesn’t have to be “ugly” or “fat,” but like Sigourney Weaver said in The Cabin in the Woods regarding The Virgin not actually being a virgin, “We work with what we’re given.” Bianca isn’t fat, but she is cute in her own unique way (I’m a sucker for a girl that isn’t afraid of wearing a classic horror movie tee). The role of the DUFF is to inadvertently serve as a gateway of sorts to her hotter friends, essentially an approachable one that guys can get to know for the purpose of finding out more about the ones they really want to have.
Bianca takes this statement to heart, letting it crush her inner-sanctum and becoming a depressed little slug. This, of course, makes Wes feel terrible, and for the majority of the film we see him spending time with her, helping her to become “her own person” so she isn’t looked at as a DUFF. The only problem is, Wes is a jock, endeavoring in an on-and-off relationship with high-school hottie Madison (Bella Thorne, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), the hottest girl in school, and if you’ve ever lived a life that required dealing with high-school girls, you already know which strings are attached to that label. She looks down on the unpopular girls (Bianca), makes out with guys in the hallway to make other girls jealous, knocks books and lunch trays out of lesser known girls’ grasps, and struts down the hallway in a belly-shirt, bearing a bitchy demeanor.
As Wes tries to be a good friend and help Bianca, taking her out to the mall to find a new wardrobe that guys (Tony in particular) will find sexy, he also has to deal with hiding from the bitchsquad, namely Madison and her preppy clique. He’s popular, Bianca isn’t. So, of course, the two can’t be together, even though it’s clear that he has feelings for her. From the moment The DUFF begins, these clichés and jolts of predictability run rampant, dictating every turn and making every event that occurs one that we saw coming not only a few scenes away, but one that we’ve seen done in so many other movies before.
So then, if The DUFF isn’t anything new, fresh, or original, then what makes it so good? Mainly, it’s the characters. Where the script fails to add anything flavorful or invigorating to its events, it makes up for it with its characters. At first, I didn’t give one single crap about Bianca, as I found Mae Whitman’s performance to be annoying and nerve-racking. But as the film progressed, I started to like her more and more, and I realized that it was an intentional annoyance. Whitman, who is best known for playing Ann in Arrested Development, really has a way of making Bianca a character that you want to root for. Similarly, Wes, while not having a character arc that rises above predictability, becomes someone that I cared about by the film’s ending, despite initially not caring whether he ended up happy or not.
And even moving past these two main characters, the movie has a wealth of supporting players, from the drama-queen Madison to the humorous teacher Mr. Arthur (Ken Jeong) to the dimwitted principal (Romany Malco) to the trying-too-hard-to-fit-in mom of Bianca (Allison Janney). If you couldn’t tell by the adjectives that preceded those nouns, all of these are characters are clichéd, and in some cases, prime examples of clichés themselves. But somehow, we don’t care. The script never takes itself too seriously and the fun is always stacked. It’s almost as if the movie is winking at us for its own absurdity, and revels in it.
But it isn’t that the entire movie is a giant spoof that doesn’t want to take anything seriously. I think that Oscar-winning director Ari Sandel knows just how predictable all of this is, but one thing that he and screenwriter Josh Cagan manage to do is be serious about the characters. Sure, many of them are written to the point of being stretched beyond belief (seriously, every time Madison started talking I was reminded at just how far the script was stretching its clichés), but that doesn’t take away the care that Bianca and Wes have earned from us.
Also in the vein of being stretched to the max is the movie’s depiction of high-school, which sometimes gets it completely right while other times taking things to insane levels. One pivotal sequence involves Wes taking Bianca out to look for new clothes, resulting in a montage of Bianca posing in fashionable attire that clearly doesn’t fit her personality as she sings loudly about her love for Tony. One of the members of Madison’s crew captures all of this on camera and the video spreads around the school. This is accurate. However, when Bianca goes to school the next day, every single person in the school points and laughs as she makes her walk of shame down the hall. It’s exaggerated to the max, but then again, maybe that was the intention of the filmmakers (or maybe I just happened to attend a high-school with mild bullying and nothing like the real deal).
Anyway, as I was watching the movie, I kept telling myself, “I don’t want these two to end up together. They’re clearly opposites,” but what was most surprising about it was that just as the film ended, it had a way of making everything okay. The movie has a great ending, not unlike the bazillions of endings we’ve seen before, but all backed up by characters that we’ve grown to care about. The movie has a nice bit of social commentary, including one sequence that has the principal rambling on and on about various social media outlets. The DUFF is a wonderful little teen comedy, one that has a great theme of finding yourself and staying true to your personality. It’s some kind of mix between Mean Girls, Pygmalion, and Crazy Stupid Love, with just a hint of John Hughes. But that hint is enough to leave a taste.
1 hr. 41 mins.
Rated PG-13 for for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying
Starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Allison Janney, Ken Jeong
Written by Josh A. Cagan
Directed by Ari Sandel