Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is a high school student who’s seemingly content with her life until she learns from her ex-best friend Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) that she’s been labeled by the entire student body as the “DUFF” – Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Much against the advice of her favorite teacher, Mr. Arthur (Ken Jeong), Bianca enlists the help of Wesley to help shake off the label given to her in the hopes that in doing so, she will land her crush Toby (Nick Eversman).
The DUFF is what we’d get if we combined every John Hughes teen-centered flick with more than a dash of Mean Girls. It also, and this is much to the film’s detriment, seems to be brought to us by Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube and every single other form of social media known on the planet.
Director Ari Sandel, who won a Best Live Action Short Film Oscar in 2007 for West Bank Story, is clearly inspired by the late great Hughes, and at times he gives us a visually inspired moment that pops with wit (dating strategies are chalked out like a football coach’s playbook), or a clever little jab at the cliques that are part and parcel with high school life. Yet Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan burden their film with way too much inner beauty preaching and social media referencing that comes off more like distracting placement than witty insight into how tech-obsessed high schoolers are today.
Going viral may be cool, but last I checked, I don’t know of too many people who actually say “viral” before pressing a button on their device and – PRESTO! It’s viral!
Nor do I think it works that way.
Sandel and Cagan’s intentions can’t be faulted here. It’s not like messages about being comfortable in your own skin are bad. They’re admirable themes, but although Cagan’s script offers some clever poking at the social structure of teenagers, the self-esteem messages are treated like after school special infomercials. That, and Cagan wastes a missed opportunity with Mae and her two friends Jess and Casey. Having the social outcast paired up with two gorgeous popular girls, both of whom could easily qualify for Prom Queen, is a nice spin on the stereotypical teen film. Like Bianca, though, who uncharacteristically drops the two as friends at the snap of a finger after learning she’s been labeled the DUFF, Cagan tosses their relationship aside until the obligatory reconciling scene.
That’s kinda expected, since the film has to set up the love triangle between Bianca, her lifelong next door neighbor ex-bestie Wesley and her diehard high school crush Toby (a story arc you can see coming from miles away if you’ve seen any teen flick). As smart as she appears to be, though, and for as long as she’s been best friends with Jess and Casey, it’s hard to buy into her irrational conflict with them, especially as rushed and out of the blue it occurs.
Still, this film has its strengths, first and foremost being Mae Whitman (most will remember her as Ann Veal from Arrested Development). Whitman is a comic natural here, giving the film a spark that’s charming and adorable while showing no hesitancy whatsoever in delving into the self-deprecating humor. It’s unfortunate that the script couldn’t match her ability to generate laughs, and saddling her with the climactic cornball speech does her no favors, but she definitely shows how capable she is in carrying a comedy here.
At 26, Robbie Amell hardly looks like the high school type, but he still shares some solid chemistry with Whitman, despite the ho-hum love/hate arc of theirs. Bella Thorne’s Madison is the typical one-note ice queen bitch of the high school, but Thorne plays sassy and cold well (to the point you’re just hoping John Bender shows up to humiliate her as much as he did Claire Standish). And there’s some dependable veteran work from the always entertaining Allison Janney and Ken Jeong, who’s refreshingly dialed-down for once.
Despite an immensely likeable turn from Mae Whitman, who does her best in holding this film together, The DUFF, although sharp at times, doesn’t have nearly the charm, wit and character depth that made the best teen comedies of John Hughes timeless hits. While definitely not a disaster, and actually an improvement over most teen oriented dreck that gets made today, the by-the-numbers plotting and heavy-handed message on self-image leave the film falling just shy of hitting the mark.
I give The DUFF a C+ (★★½).