Mean girls and boys
Do we really need another movie about teenagers and their problems, with high school kids being played by performers who are clearly gaining fast on 30? Probably not, but when a picture delivers the goods we might as well say so, and The DUFF turns out to be unexpectedly delightful.
DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend—and from now on I’ll drop the all-caps, if only to keep this review from looking like a government pamphlet. A Duff is the person in any social group of three or more who (without necessarily being actually ugly or fat) is there to make the others look good. In the movie, Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) learns from her next-door neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) that she is the Duff to her BFFs Jessica (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). Jess and Casey are the hotties all the boys are hot for. Bianca, not so much.
This is the first major leap of faith we have make—the idea that Mae Whitman, even by comparison to Samuels and Santos, could pass for a Duff. It’s like in Easy A, where we were expected to believe that there was a high school anywhere in the universe where Emma Stone could possibly go unnoticed. Ah, but you see, Whitman’s Bianca, like Stone’s Olive in Easy A, is smart. And in the universe where movies like this take place, that automatically handicaps her on any scale of attraction. That’s another point that the charitable, in the interest of having a good time at the movies, will agree to overlook. After that, The DUFF is pretty smooth sailing.
Fans of Kody Keplinger’s novel may disagree. In some circles the book is considered a sort of female The Catcher in the Rye, and Josh A. Cagan’s script certainly softens the hard edges of the book’s Bianca while de-sexualizing her relationship with Wesley. However, for those of us who found the book’s Bianca to be a nasty, full-of-herself little snot, Whitman’s Bianca is much better company.
In Cagan’s script, Bianca agrees to overcome her disgust and antipathy for Wesley and tutor him in science so he can remain on the football team and preserve his chances for a scholarship. In return, he’ll coach her out of her Duffiness so she can become “the dateable one.” (“You’ve got the easier job,” he tells her; “I have to reverse-Duff you. … For starters, you need to stop dressing like Wreck-It Ralph.”)
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see where all this is headed. Since in the novel Bianca and Wesley jump almost directly into having grudge-sex, the movie needs to set up an obstacle to that if it expects to preserve its PG-13 rating. The obstacle comes in the form of Madison (Bella Thorne), Wesley’s on-and-off girlfriend, a new character who seems to have dropped in from a road-company production of Mean Girls. Madison hates the idea that her ex would end up with a loser like Bianca, and she orders her own Duff, Ashley (Gabriela Fraile), to cyberbully Bianca.
On this point Keplinger’s fans will have good reason to complain. Madison is a poor addition to the mix, and it’s not Thorne’s fault; nobody could make this character real. It’s one of a number of miscalculations in the movie—like the locker-room scene where Wesley keeps twitching his pecs while talking to Bianca, which only emphasizes that Amell is a long way out of high school. Or casting Ken Jeong as Bianca’s journalism teacher—nothing against Jeong, but the character is a hopeless cornball gimmick. (Allison Janney as Bianca’s divorced mother is more successful—and funnier.)
What makes The DUFF a pleasant ride is what saves any romantic comedy: the chemistry between the two stars. Whitman and Amell have an easy rapport on screen that probably makes Cagan’s dialogue sound snappier than it really is, and that smooths Ari Sandel’s sometimes jittery direction.
Whitman especially is ready for her close-up, after six seasons on TV’s Parenthood and years of animation voice work as April O’Neil in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tinker Bell on Disney direct-to-video. With luck, this woman who made her first movie (When a Man Loves a Woman) at age 6 could become a major star. Even without it, she could keep playing variations on Bianca Piper until she’s 65.