2015, PG-13, 110 mins.
2015, PG-13, 110 mins.
Mae Whitman as Bianca / Robbie Amell as Wesley / Bella Thorne as Madison / Skyler Samuels as Jess / Bianca A. Santos as Casey / Nick Eversman as Toby / Ken Jeong as Mr. Arthur / Allison Janney as Dottie / Romany Malco as Principal Buchanon
Directed by Ari Sandel / Written by Josh A. Cagan / Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger
THE DUFF is a new high school romcom that does very little, if anything, new with the genre itself. Reinventing the proverbial wheel does not seem to be part of its chief motive.
what the film does with the wheel that modestly won me over, especially
for the manner that it manages to both adhere to romcom conventions while slyly subverting them.
Perhaps even better, THE DUFF seems to cater itself to both young
viewers – its intended audience – as well as older adult audience
members, which is a tricky dichotomy to pull off effectively.
In many respects, the film has the nostalgic no-nonsense attitude
and sophistication of an old John Hughes high school comedy, which is
carried largely by the inherent charms of its well-assembled cast.
title is derived from an acronym: DUFF stands for “designated ugly fat
friend,” or a person that’s neither unattractive nor immensely
gorgeous and is used by far prettier friends to make themselves stand out
that much more. The Duff in
question gets a unique opportunity to hang with popular kids in school, a
status typically deemed as being unattainable by most. The friends of the Duff get the pleasure of her company while
using her as a gatekeeper for enhanced social interaction with members of
the opposite sex. Now, it
would be easy to say that the Duff is a socially abused being, but there
seems to be – as far as this film goes – a mutual respect and
acceptance on either side of the spectrum.
Hot girls use Duffs to look even more attractive, whereas Duffs use
their gorgeous friends to be a part of a larger high school clique once
forbidden to them. Seems like a match
made in heaven for all involved.
what if the Duff…doesn’t know that she/he is a Duff?
That’s the main conundrum that Bianca Pepper (Mae Whitman) faces
in the film. Bianca is not an
ugly duckling. She’s
physically appealing, to be sure, but not in the same stratosphere of her
BFFs Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos).
Yet, the three remain a well-oiled triumvirate and seem to
genuinely enjoy each other’s company, even though Bianca seems more
interested in geeky pursuits than her two pals. Unfortunately, Bianca is rather untrained in the art of
hooking up with boys: she has a large crush on a musically inclined Toby
(Nick Eversman), but she feels woefully out of his league. Her chances of dating him are slim to none...and
slim just left town.
become very complicated for Bianca, though, when she has a chance meeting at a party one fateful
night with local school jock and captain of the football team Wesley (Robbie Amell).
Wesley matter-of-factly and politely reveals to Bianca of her “duffness,”
to which she initially throws off as nonsense.
Yet, evidence begins to mount that Wesley is indeed right about her
status as a Duff, which leads to her abandoning her friends and going solo
on the social front. As time
passes, Wesley and Bianca decide to make a special deal that will benefit
each other equally: She will help him pass his science class to ensure his
scholarship eligibility and he will, in return, help her become more
socially desirable. Predictably, Bianca stumbles mightily in her first attempts
to achieve a newfound level of self-actualized hotness, but the more time
she spends with Wesley the more she begins to fall for the star athlete.
does not require a special narrative road map to discover just what will
happen with Bianca and Wesley over the course of THE DUFF.
To say that the two unlikely companions will eventually become an
item by the time the credits roll by is hardly spoiler material.
The film hits many perfunctory beats in the high school romcom
playbook without batting an eye at times.
The contrived obviousness of the whole scenario that Bianca finds
herself in during the story seems like it was recycled from many
countless past genre efforts, which somewhat hurts THE DUFF from achieving
the type of freshness of approach that recent films like MEAN GIRLS, EASY
A, or JUNO achieved.
Ultimately, THE DUFF’s main message of “learning to
like yourself” and “finding that someone special in unexpected places
via odd means" is hardly a radical concept for films like this.
the painfully preordained conclusion of THE DUFF really doesn’t stymie
its effectiveness all that much, seeing as the film as two remarkably
likeable leads in Whitman and Amell to help ground the preposterousness of
their situation. Whitman is
arguably too fine of an actress for this type of telegraphed material, but
she certainly makes Bianca an infectiously inviting and eccentrically
amiable presence on screen that really is benefited by the actress finely
attuned skills at comic timing. Whitman
has a self-deprecating sense of humor that many actors of her age lack,
which certainly benefits in her portrayal of the witty, assured, but
vulnerable Bianca. I
appreciated the fact that Whitman also does not play Bianca as a social
victim in the film, but rather as a headstrong and determined go-getter
that tries to better her station in life.
Whitman is definitely not unappealing – she’s very easy on the
eyes – but what makes her perhaps more attractive than some of her
co-stars is her manner she has fun at the expense of her character.
well matched with Amell, who plays a character that could have been a
largely one-note, stereotypical jock persona (which has been the
dime-a-dozen norm for films like this for decades).
Amell plays the role with relative tact and grace, showing us a
young man of youthful cockiness and swagger that may or many not have all
of the answers himself. It’s
also quite wonderful to watch a high school comedy where the prototypical
jock is not a grade-A and loathsome heel.
Wesley has real feelings and uncertainties as well, which makes his
dynamic with Whitman’s Bianca rise above the film’s overt rudimentary
formulas. I only wished that
some of the other characters in the film were fleshed out as well.
The great Allison Janney shows up as Bianca’s “hip” and
“understanding” mother that feels a bit too obviously written on
paper. One large problem that
THE DUFF suffers from – that arguably many classic John Hughes films did
as well – is that it fails to make the adult characters in the film
credible, fleshed-out entities.
Yeah, THE DUFF rarely achieves teen comedy greatness. It’s not a particularly challenging, nor compelling movie about teen angst. Despite the fact that there are some poignant moments to be had at poor Bianca’s expense mixed in with some of the film’s more broad-based comedy, THE DUFF largely feels tonally inconsistent as a whole. Yet, I find myself humbly recommending the film for the way that the underlining script – and winning performances by Whitman and Amell – seems to thoughtfully shun genre troupes. That, and how Whitman is not a major comic star yet is a mystery to me. She’s done a handful of superlative supporting work on TV for years – my favourite being a recurring mousey and religious character on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT – and here she proves her comedic pedigree. With a lesser actress at the helm THE DUFF would have been all but forgeable and disposable. Whitman is shrewd and crafty enough as a performer to make this fairly middling material work and allow for THE DUFF to be a pleasant diversion.