The DUFF (2015) / Comedy-Romance
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Allison Janney, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Ken Jeong, Nick Eversman, Romany Malco, Chris Wylde
Director: Ari Sandel
Screenplay: Josh A. Cagan (based on the novel by Kody Keplinger)
Review published February 20, 2015
The DUFF is short for the 'Designated Ugly Fat Friend', which is the term given to the least attractive one (usually a girl) among a group that makes the others look more attractive by comparison. The film, loosely adapted from the novel by Kody Keplinger, places the DUFF as a traditional role in the social hierarchy of all high schools, fulfilling the role of being the more sociable, approachable one in the group that inadvertently screens members of the opposite sex from pestering the hot ones.
If you look at the DUFF of the story, you'll immediately assume this film is demeaning to the term, because star Mae Whitman (The Wind Rises, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is neither ugly nor fat, which may turn off some potential viewers who feel like the bar has been lowered so much, that it will likely be insulting to most, especially those who don't feel they're as pretty or thin as Whitman. I came into it with these preconceived notions, and I can tell you that the movie does a fairly good job at explaining that the DUFF needn't actually be ugly or fat, but it's a more broad (though not much less cruel) term merely for the least attractive person among any clique of friends, which means everyone is someone more attractive's DUFF at one time or another.
Whitman plays Bianca Piper, the artsy/geeky best friend to two of the hottest girls in school. Wesley (Amell, "The Tomorrow People") is the captain of the football team who also happens to be a lifelong platonic friend to Bianca, and, through his perpetual immaturity, blurts out to her that she's the DUFF in her group. She's understandably upset by this, and then begins to realize he may be right, immediately breaking off her friendships and recalibrating her existence. Feeling sorry for Bianca, and in exchange for help with his science class, Wesley agrees to help the awkward girl overcome her unflattering wardrobe choices and self-confidence problems by helping her gain the interest of her big crush, Toby (Eversman, Wild), which means trying to make her less DUFF and more hot babe.
The DUFF plays like a silly mix of sitcom and the kinds of movies for teens you'd find on Disney or ABC Family (though this is by CBS Films), except for stronger language and quite a few sexual references that push the film's appropriate age range beyond the typical tween-aged demographic you'd likely expect. It's visually punchy, snarky, and has a decent cast of likeable actors (the charmingly funny and likeable Whitman almost singlehandedly makes the film work, though), and never makes the mistake, even when Bianca seems down, of dipping into maudlin or serious moments that tend to undermine the comedy. It's definitely witty, even if the story is slight and plotline manufactured.
Though I do find The DUFF amusing and smart enough to recommend for those who like teen flicks, one aspect I didn't like as much is the overuse of the phrase, 'DUFF', during the normal course of the film. It's one thing for Bianca to have only heard of the term well into her time at high school, but the way nearly every other student in the school seems to know and use the term so liberally, it seems farfetched that she'd only be hearing about it from her longtime friend Wesley randomly. It's also another to assume the rest of the world knows the term too, as a video is uploaded to YouTube showing a particularly embarrassing series of moments surreptitiously captured of Bianca acting weird. It's titled 'DUFF Love", and supposedly goes viral, because, I guess, everyone in the world knows the term and is searching for such content. That the movie also thinks that shutting down one YouTube stream means it will never resurface again is one of several ways this otherwise internet-age savvy film paints itself into comedic corners it can't neatly get out of.
Though the movie will undoubtedly increase usage of the insult among teenagers, perpetuating the kind of bullying the thematic material seems to be fighting against, ultimately The DUFF does manage to push forward the notion that girls and boys can each be attractive in their own ways, independently of how popular or physically beautiful they may seem at first glance. This dual-edged component to an otherwise innocuous film may leave one feeling a level of discomfort that being termed a DUFF is still far from a badge of honor, but I think that by showing that there's more to admire from young women than just their physique, it does succeed at making Bianca, who even when dressed up refreshingly never ceases to be absolutely her same geeky self throughout, look like the most appealing girl on the screen.
©2015 Vince Leo