The DUFF is one of those rare films that manages to transcend its own genre while operating entirely within genre conventions. That doesn’t make it an all-time great movie, but it does make is a very good one, especially within the high school rom-com subgenre. I was a little hard on Project Almanac just a few weeks ago for being “too high school-y;” The DUFF is no less an exceedingly “high school-y” movie, but it makes the most of those expectations, producing what might be the best look at high school relationships in the digital age since 2010’s Easy A.
Ultimately, The DUFF is a new spin on the idea that labels shouldn’t define you as a person, but can nonetheless have a profound effect on self-conception. Mae Whitman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Bianca, the (shall we say) less noticed member of her trio of best friends. It’s an at times annoying fact of her life, but one she’s pretty much content to ignore until childhood-neighbor-friend-turned-douchebag-popular-jock Wesley (Robbie Amell, CW’s The Tomorrow People – and that should give you a hint as to his role, as he is aggressively typecast here) points out that she is the DUFF of her friends – the Designated Ugly Fat Friend, i.e. the one in her group who’s approachable but undesired, the friend always in the friend zone, the one whose accomplishments, especially socially, will always be dwarfed by others in the group. Furious though Bianca understandably is, she strikes a deal with Wesley to help him pass chemistry if he’ll un-DUFF her.
So in the setup is your by now familiar joining of the popular kid with the unpopular one for the enrichment of both. And sure enough, the movie goes there. It even gets there through some pretty familiar beats, a homecoming dance serving as the setting for the denouement. It’s actually a little difficult to enumerate what makes this movie such a great exemplar for the genre done right because it sticks so closely to the expectations of its genre. Its success is necessarily in the details. A lot credit has to go to the sheer charismatic magnetism of Mae Whitman, who is game for everything thrown her way. The movie also makes great use of the implicit understanding that it is in fact a movie. There’s no fourth wall breaking, but The DUFF makes full use of its ability to engage in dream sequences and other similarly knowing mechanisms to great comic effect.
But what really sets The DUFF apart might be its integration of social media, particularly its willingness to engage with the darker corners of a high school that’s plugged into Twitter, YouTube, and other channels where information can be circulated almost instantly. One of the most powerful sequences of the movie involves Bianca being publicly shamed for an embarrassing incident caught on video – one where she was privately joking with a friend, but the wrong eyes, or rather cell phone camera, just happened to see and record. Big Brother’s popularity watchdogs are more omnipresent than ever. It’s a clever recasting of an old genre standby plot point, and it both reveals the immense power of social media and greatly strengthens the eventual discovery that self-confidence, not popular validation, is what’s most important.
The DUFF doesn’t make it through the whole runtime without some missteps. In particular, there’s one plot turn in the romantic story at about the half- to three quarters-mark that’s too familiar to the genre for its own good, and anyways doesn’t feel organic to the characters involved. But once I was able to realign with the direction the movie chose to go, it didn’t take long to start having fun with it again.
Whitman is the core of this film and is easily given the most to do, but the supporting cast are, for the most part, nice compliments. Robbie Amell is effectively nothing but the Secretly (even from himself) Nice Popular Jock, but it’s a role that’s almost needed, and whether by the writing of the role or by Amell’s performance, Wesley is surprisingly human for such an otherwise two-dimensional and at times insufficiently motivated character. The idea that he and Bianca have a history of friendship from when they were younger goes a long way to quickly filling him out without resorting to excessive exposition. Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels turn in serviceable performances as Bianca’s (the character’s) friends, as does Bella Thorne as her antagonist, but the other really notable part goes to the always delightful Allison Janney as Bianca’s mother, Dottie. Following an ugly divorce, Dottie has found success as a self-help lecturer, and Janney makes her annoyingly overenthusiatic in the best way, a constantly humerous source of useless self-help aphorisms that Bianca is all too familiar with.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
For the most part, The DUFF is just a really good example of its high school rom-com subgenre, anchored by a strong leading performance from Mae Whitman, who’s given plenty of room to play the quirky individual against the stereotype of Robbie Amell’s jock character and Allison Janney’s type-A self-help guru. It’s a funny ride that know how to play with its medium (kudos to director Ari Sandel), made more memorable by surprising depth and emotion in some well-written character history (and a shout out to writers Josh Cagan and Kody Keplinger). At its best, though, The DUFF is a phenomenal genre update that makes full use of the power of cell phones and social media in a way that doesn’t pander, but in fact enlightens as to their incredible power.