I first heard of The DUFF when a couple of film critics I follow online started saying some positive things about it; that this was a surprisingly decent high school comedy. I made a mental note to check it out when given the chance, but was later quite repulsed when I learned what the film was actually about. DUFF you see stands for ‘designated ugly fat friend’. The premise of this movie involves a teenage girl realising that she is said ‘DUFF’, that her friends only hang around with her to make themselves look better, and that guys only talk to her to gain access to her ‘hotter’ acquaintances. Ugh.
In the world of this movie, this is apparently quite a common thing too; many people seem actively aware of the notion and have gone so far as to make online games about it and such. That is, except for out unfortunate protagonist, high school senior Bianca. Making matters worse, she’s played by Mae Whitman, each to their own and all but she’s not remotely ugly even by Hollywood’s awful standards and objectively not fat. That’s not a slam on Whitman as an actress; she’s very likeable in the lead here, it’s just one of those typical casting decisions that harken back to vile teen movies like She’s All That.
Similarly, I have a hard time buying Whitman as a teenager at this point. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen her playing teens for years and have already seen her play roles that match her real age (she’s in her mid-twenties) that make it a tougher sell, similar to if her Arrested Development/Scott Pilgrim co-star Michael Cera suddenly returned to teenage roles. She’s got nothing on her male co-star though. The film’s plot kicks off with Bianca being informed at a party that she is ‘the duff’ by her next door neighbour and childhood friend Wesley (Robbie Amell). Wesley looks like a male model in his late twenties, so much so that I looked up Amell online afterwards and lo and behold; he is a male model in his late twenties.
Bianca’s realisation leads to her deciding to ditch her friends and set out to change her image and her social standing so she can finally gain the courage to ask out the guitar player called Toby she’s long had a crush on but been unable to speak to. Wesley meanwhile, is naturally the school’s football captain in an on-off relationship with its queen mean-girl Madison (Bella Thorne), herself an aspiring reality TV star. In a horrendously contrived set-up, Wesley is told that he’s failing science, and has been dropped from the football team until he gets his grades up. Bianca being unpopular, is of course very good at science, so they strike up a deal; she’ll help him with his schoolwork if he helps her improve her social life.
At this point, anyone possessing even a passing familiarity with romantic comedies will know exactly where this movie is going. And go there it does, there is not a single turn in the plot that isn’t eye-rollingly predictable. The film does appear to be integrating modern social media into the plot rather well, but then I remembered that the ‘embarrassing video going online’ thing was done by American Pie over a decade ago.
In fact the film’s desire to be bang-up-to-date with its technology is a bit of a double-edged sword. It does effectively convey how important it is to modern teens, and begins with an inventive sequence that puts hashtags and such on the screen. However this soon becomes a little annoying, and it will be interesting to see how this film ages, it name-drops virtually every social-media platform you could think of at some point, words that may mean nothing to viewers in a couple of decades. It takes this idea so far in fact that it off-puttingly places the cast and crew’s twitter handles alongside their names in the credits.
Despite this overload, The Duff is generally a fairly well made movie, director Ari Sandel maintains a decent pace throughout the groan-worthy proceedings. Whitman is very good in the lead, but she deserves better material than this. A few other comedic bright spots are the brief appearances by Romany Malco, Ken Jeong and particularly an underutilised Allison Janney as Bianca’s mother, a divorcee who’s reinvented herself as a self-help guru.
The Duff starts with an ugly, shallow premise, and initially appears to be turning the tables with its protagonist’s rejection of this, sending a more positive message. However it ultimately is as hollow as the superficial people it intends to satirise, and just embraces every awful high-school movie cliché that it can.