A film review by Craig J. Koban July 9, 2015


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.  

Yet, it’s 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. 

The 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. 



Yet, 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. 

Things 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.  

One 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. 

However, 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.  

She’s 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. 

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