Greetings again from the darkness. I was never a teenage girl, and for that, I am quite thankful. By comparison, being a teenage guy was a breeze. No filmmaker was better than the great John Hughes at capturing the challenges of high school … especially for girls. The mysteries of adolescent social hierarchy has long been a favorite movie target, and director Ari Sandel (Oscar winner for his short film West Bank Story) and screenwriter Josh Cagan loosely base their film on the novel from Kody Keplinger.
Mae Whitman (from TV’s “Parenthood”) stars as Bianca, a very smart student who enjoys hanging with her two best friends Casey (Bianca Santos, Ouija) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). That all changes one evening at a party when Bianca’s neighbor, and the school’s alpha-jock Wesley (Robbie Amell, Firestorm in TV’s “The Flash”), informs her that she is the titular “DUFF” … Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The term itself is quite offensive, but the movie does its best to soften the blow by explaining that it doesn’t necessarily mean ugly or fat – a confusing turn, but fortunate since Ms. Whitman is neither.
As you might imagine, the familiar terrain of teen angst movies is covered and any hope of real insight is dashed pretty early on. However, it does spend a significant amount of time driving home the point that social media plays a dominant role in every aspect of teen life these days, including cyber-bullying. It’s no wonder that insecurities abound … one never knows when their trip to the mall or make-out session with a mannequin will become a viral video.
There are familiar aspects of such classics as Pretty in Pink, She’s All That, and Mean Girls. Robbie Amell even looks very much like Michael Schoeffling from Sixteen Candles. However, the film features two of my movie pet peeves. First, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell are both in their mid-20’s – entirely too old to be playing high school students. Secondly, Mr Amell plays a jock but clearly cannot throw a football like one – and he does it three cringe-inducing times.
Mae Whitman has excellent screen presence and comes across as a blend of Janeane Garofalo, Ellen Page, and Aubrey Plaza. That’s pretty high praise, but she elevates a script that needs it, and holds her own with screen vets like Allison Janney (as her distracted mom) and Ken Jeong (as her slightly loopy journalism teacher).
The film is a commentary on today’s high school life, but the predictability and obvious gags prevent it from ever going too deep or appealing to any audience other than “tweeners”. Still, any film that smacks down the nasty people (here played by Bella Thorne) and advises to be true to one’s self, can’t be all bad.