This isn’t to disparage the efforts of all involved, as clearly the cast and crew are loving playing in the sandbox that is the coming-of-age US teen comedy. This subgenre has had an interesting ability to have the rest of the world either feeling like they understand what it is to be an American high schooler or even wish they were – when who knows why, because the experience is often portrayed as cripplingly hellish as anywhere else in the world – only with more labels and well-defined social strata.
Which brings us to the plot of The DUFF; as may or may not be vaguely signposted with its title, the film revolves around Mae Whitman’s Bianca discovering that she is her two conventionally attractive friends’ Designated Ugly Fat Friend. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s ugly, or fat, but it definitely means that she’s the less attractive, more approachable one. With the help of childhood friend turned man-whore jock Wesley (an assured, yet, dare I say it – layered performance from Robbie Amell), she discovers that she is the gatekeeper for any guy who wants more info about besties Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A Santos). Invisible, until a guy needs an ‘in’ with her more popular cohorts.
What happens next is obvious, for anyone who’s seen even eight minutes of She’s All That. It’s the Ugly Duckling all over again (and one more ‘again’, considering She’s All That has trod this ground before) as Bianca sets out to reverse-DUFF herself with the help of Wesley. The film covers a lot of ground in regards to cliques and labels, and subverts many of them (at least, it subverts many of them enough to make a difference for yank teen films). The jock has a heart of gold, the DUFF herself has two best friends who, although slightly vapid and extremely pretty are really nice people, the sensitive, bleeding heart guitar guy (Nick Eversman) is as much of a douche as most of the jocks, etc etc.
The Duff has an admirable mission statement in that it wants everyone to realise they’re a DUFF for someone else, no matter how attractive or interesting you are, that everyone has a bit of jock in them no matter how sensitive you are, and so on and on. However the film trips up in its assertion that ‘mean girl’ Madison (a note perfect performance, for what it is, by Bella Thorne) is simply a mean girl. She has some sort of vague “character tic” (and I use that term loosely) in that she has everything she does filmed by a lackey in order to prepare for her future career as FFBF (Famous For Being Famous). But a character who is a complete bitch for the sake of it is boring, and trite.
Luckily the film makes up for this by having a very sweet through-line, ably carried by Mae Whitman, who is given a great showcase here as unsuspecting lead. She carries the morals and heart of the film on her shoulders, and should prove to be a very relatable role model for a lot of young women out there. Amell equally holds his own, providing charisma and conviction in his part as the jock with a who’d-have-guessed-it hidden heart of gold. He’s definitely got the makings of a commercial star in the making (although wouldn’t it be nice if an actor with this kind of start immediately branched out into some dark indie stuff? He’s got the vibe for it, that’s for sure).
But listen, at the end of the day, the film is chasing some hard-to-follow forebears. It has a solid script, visuals that pop, and even touches on the very-present and frightfully ever-growing issue of cyber-bullying. At its most basic level it can be used as an educational tool for the kids of today (hopefully) – that cyber-bullying is horrible and damaging and no one escapes as easily as Bianca does in this film (after a video of her doing questionable things to mannequins for a laugh goes viral).
And several bars below that it feels like a studio exec picked up Kody Keplinger’s book (on which the film is based) and asked “hey – why don’t we do She’s All That with smartphones?”. But, hey – that’s fine. Because The Duff has heart, and laughs, and great improv from the likes of Ken Jeong and Chris Wylde and if you’re a purveyor of US teen films then you will undoubtedly leave the cinema smiling – and if not, just the faintest glow of warmth emanating from your heart. Give it a go. The creators of The Duff sure did.
Review by Daniel Woburn
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