The title ‘The DUFF’ refers to the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” required in any high school buddy circle. It’s one of those terms that no one actually says, but used to be the basis of ‘Seinfeld’ episodes, then ‘Friends’ episodes, and now most sitcom episodes. In this fairly charming little comedy, you’ll hear the phrase repeated to the point of annoyance. Thankfully, it’s not the movie’s only joke, just its most common. The flick is far more watchable than the trailers suggest.
Mae Whitman from ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Parenthood’ stars as one of those wisecracking, post-‘Mean Girls’ teen comedy leads in the ‘Juno’ mold. Her Bianca is hyper-articulate, intimidatingly intelligent, pretty and funny, yet inexplicably unpopular. She just can’t fit in. But she has two gorgeous friends whose personalities are defined entirely by their interests: the fashion maven (Skyler Samuels) and the hacker (Bianca A. Santos).
One night, while being awkward in flannel at a beer party, Bianca’s boy-next-door friend Wesley (Robbie Amell) points out that she’s a DUFF, and she falls into an existential crisis. She ditches her longtime friends and starts hanging out with Wesley to learn how to be anything other than a dumb DUFF. Soon, that leads to jealously from the boy’s perpetually on-again/off-again, generically hot girlfriend (Bella Thorne), which in turn leads to a little cyber bullying that further ruins Bianca’s high school social status. (Oh no!) Thankfully, she has some helpfully awkward teachers like Ken Jeong being Ken Jeong (always a good thing). Plus, Wesley seems to be getting closer to her all the time, but not in a way that could possibly be romantic, right? That would be ridiculous!
So yeah, you can guess what type of teen comedy this is. There were many before it, and there will be many after it. You know, it’s one of those beautiful-nerdy-girl-gets-the-boy movies. Of all the high school comedy clichés, at least it’s the one that’s been run into the ground the least. The dialogue in Josh A. Cagan’s script is so snappy that you might feel like you’ll get whiplash, and Ari Sandel’s aggressively colorful visual style requires sunglasses.
There are so many ways in which ‘The DUFF’ proves to be a deeply annoying example of a typically annoying genre. And yet, somehow against the odds, the whole thing is kind of fun. Once you get beyond the sheer number of times that characters refer to the title, the movie actually has some laughs, and its finale and message are even rather sweet without being too syrupy. ‘The DUFF’ might be generic, but it makes generic high school comedies look good.
Most of that comes down to the excellent casting, which thankfully avoids the usual teen star trappings. For the most part, the kids are funny. In particular, Whitman is a damn delight, managing to succeed in getting laughs and pulling out emotions whether mugging or playing things real. The movie is designed to be a star-launcher for her and she deserves it. Amell and Throne also play their high school movie types with more energy, enthusiasm and humor than they have any right to. Still, the biggest laughs come from Jeong and Chris Wylde, who improv up some inappropriate teachers so hilarious you’ll wish the movie could be about them.
Ironically, the worst performances come from Bianca’s pretty friends, who are generic and dull even though the movie tells us that they’re inherently better by being prettier. That’s a problem, especially since Bianca always seems to be more attractive and interesting than her teen superiors no matter how many times the movie insists otherwise (well, until a message-packed ending, of course). Not to mention the fact that it’s deeply irresponsible for filmmakers to keep suggesting to teenage boys that teen girls enjoy vintage Italian zombie movies and Vincent Price marathons. Granted, that’s a personal pet peeve that I’ve had since ‘Juno’, but one that desperately needs to be addressed for the good of the children.
It’s safe to say that ‘The DUFF’ is a quite flawed from the title on down. However, thanks to some clever casting and a script that’s slightly better than average, it should at least charm the pants off the target viewers who haven’t discovered John Hughes yet. This genre will never die, but as long as the movies continue to be as passably consumable as ‘The DUFF’ or ‘Easy A’, that’s at least tolerable. I mean, it’s not as if a movie like ‘Heathers’ would be remotely culturally acceptable anymore. These sorts of movies will have to do for the foreseeable future.