Monday, March 23, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Ari Sandel
Cast: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

It's been a while since we've had a truly great high school film. 

And it will still be a while before we get one, because The DUFF never manages to truly escape the colossal shadow of Easy A. But, if you ignore the hyperbolically insistent fat-shaming of a normal-sized human being at its core, The DUFF is a disarmingly sweet and tentatively modern little comedy at least worth a pity watch during a Redbox binge.

I mean, she can't have spent more than $1.29 on those overalls so why pay more than that to watch her in action?

The DUFF tells the story of Bianca (Mae Whitman, who has been playing a high school student for a decade now - Hollywood is a weird place), a horror nerd who has trouble making conversation with people who don't know who Bela Lugosi is. Not that I would know anything about that, I was a super cool jock in high school.

Bianca's two best friends are Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos of Ouija), who are, let's say, hot enough to be cast members of Ouija. When Bianca's douchey jock neighbor/reluctant childhood best friend Wes (Robbie Amell) informs her that she is a DUFF, or Designated Ugly Fat Friend (whose purpose is to make her friends look hotter by comparison), she goes into a downward spiral. Her actions are loosely based around the five stages of grief, but this plot structure drifts away into the wind after Robbie Amell shows his abs.

I mean, I'd get distracted too, but I'm not a professional screenwriter. Keep it together, guys.

What ends up happening is that Bianca offers to tutor Wes in chemistry in exchange for him helping her learn how to be pretty and popular. Quid pro status quo, if you will. Or maybe you shouldn't. When Queen Bee Madison (Bella Thorne) gets wind of Bianca spending time with her soon-to-be boyfriend, she flips out, sending one of her flying monkeys to spread embarrassing viral videos of Bianca and destroy her reputation.

She pursues her hottie crush Toby (Nick Eversman) while dealing with the inevitable feelings that come to light concerning one Wesley McPecNeighbor. Oh, and Bianca is assigned to write an article for the school paper about "What Homecoming Means to Me," because the screenwriters took a brief pause in their Easy A marathon to pop in Never Been Kissed.

What ensues is a largely pleasant, intensely forgettable experience. I'm happy that Mae Whitman has finally been given a shot to lead a wide release movie. After her standout performance as Ann Veal on Arrested Development 900 years ago, she certainly deserves it. And I can get behind any Hollywood comedy about female friendship, though the premise of the film is dubiously progressive at best.

Come one, come all! Marvel at how ugly and fat and... designated this human woman is!

Although The DUFF takes most of its story cues (and many visual moments) directly from the hallowed halls of high school film history, at least it had the good sense to choose the best ones. It's a lukewarm mash, for sure, but the tropes it cherry picks were enjoyable once and continue to sparkle, at least enough to keep the film modestly entertaining for 90 or so of its 100 minutes. It will never be held to the same level of idolatry as Mean Girls or Pretty in Pink, but its "who cares what other people think?" message is still an important one to send to the youth of today.

Unfortunately, the youth of today might find that they have very little in common with the bronzed, overaged facsimiles of teenagers that populate this universe. As tends to happen when inveterate adults attempt to write about modern technology, the references to social media are frequent, forced, and bewildering, like a James Franco lecture tour.

There's a couple pristine jokes in there about Twitter and such, but one gets the sense that none of the crew members are old enough to have teen daughters. It's a darn shame, because they could have instantly pointed out that A) There's no notification when somebody unfriends you on Facebook, B) It makes zero sense to ask how many hits a YouTube video has gotten while it's in the process of being filmed, and C) In no rational universe would the exchange "Viral?" "Viral." ever happen outside of the fever-addled nightmares of Rebecca Black.

At this point, The DUFF has more speculative science fiction than Interstellar.

There's some interesting integration of UI and dubstep imagery into the film, so credit where credit is due. But for the most part, the techie side of the script will remind teens of what it's like when grandma calls, asking how to get her Air Supply records out of the iTune.

Also, in all honesty, Bianca is kind of a selfish jerk. The way she holds her end of the bargain is by handing Wes her chemistry notebook and prancing away into the sunset to cry about the friends that she abandoned. After all the work he puts into helping her achieve her goals, it's actually really unfair. And her irritation with anybody who can't list the major landmark zombie films of the 1970's in alphabetical order is not a healthy way to get through life. At least the set designers did their research, filling her room with genuine horror nerd posters (Shock Waves! Nice!) instead of super generic mainstream fodder that she'd almost certainly hate.

"The Walking Dead is for chumps. I don't even own a TV."

But Whitman's performances outshines her character's writing and she brings a comic spirit and humanity to the character that renders her chemistry with the green Amell entirely natural.

Oh, also Ken Jeong and Allison Janney are in the movie, as Bianca's teacher and mother respectively. But Janney is sidelined for the bulk of the run time, and Jeong can't find anything unique to do with a character who isn't a borderline psychotic. 

All in all, The DUFF is exactly what you'd expect from a February release. B-level stars doing an OK job with a decent script, but nothing special. I'm glad it exists, and I'd watch it again at a slumber party or something, but I'd definitely keep my Twitter open while it was playing.

There. That's how you be a teenager. Case closed.

TL;DR: The DUFF is a listless mishmash of high school teen movie tropes, but it's a pleasantly generic experience.
Rating: 6/10
Should I Spend Money On This? No more than $5, but sure, go for it.
Word Count: 1124

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