For some, high school was a great time they look back on with fondness. Others view it as years in a dungeon being tortured by bullies. For most, the experience falls somewhere in the middle. Several films over the years have examined high school for the drama and humor that can occur. Movies like “Sixteen Candles,” “Mean Girls,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “The Breakfast Club” examined the power dynamics of the different cliques and how those with perceived power minimized or ignored those they thought undeserving. The latest entry into the genre is “The DUFF,” how a young woman learns she’s her friends’ less attractive friend and how that is used for their benefit. I suppose I would have qualified as the DUFF had not nearly everyone I hung out with also not been a DUFF. In the movie, the Designated Ugly, Fat Friend at first succumbs to the pressure to be “datable,” whatever that means, but learns in the end to be beautiful in her own way.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is best friends with Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). The three young women are constantly together when not in a class in their high school. Homecoming is approaching and Casey and Jess want Bianca to join them at the dance but Bianca doesn’t have a date and doesn’t feel like being a part of that social scene. Bianca is quirky, dresses sort of grungy, loves horror movies and is somewhat socially awkward; never more so than when she approaches her crush Toby (Nick Eversman) when she can’t put three words together and runs away. Bianca lives next door to Wesley (Robbie Amell), the football star and resident stud of the school. They’ve known each other all their lives and have an uneasy friendship. Wesley off and on dates the Queen B of the school, Madison (Bella Thorne) who knows she is pretty and doesn’t mind letting you know you’re nothing to her. At a party at Madison’s, Wesley tells Bianca she is the DUFF for Casey and Jess. Not knowing what that means, Wesley explains to her it means Designated Ugly Fat Friend who is used by prettier girls to act as a kind of information center. Boys interested in dating Casey and Jess approach Bianca first and find out details they might use in their approach to the girls. Offended and hurt by his suggestion, Bianca throws a drink in Wesley’s face and storms out of the party. Looking up the word online, Bianca begins to think she is a DUFF. That becomes even more evident as she looks back over social media and notices she’s the third wheel in the photos she is in with Casey and Jess. She’s so angry over the situation, she tells the girls she no longer wants to be their friend and blocks them from viewing her various online activities. Wesley and Bianca are in the same chemistry class and he is failing. His grades are getting him pulled off the football team. Bianca, who is great in chemistry, offers Wesley a deal: She will tutor him to help pull up his grades if he will help her shed her dumpy image and make her datable. The deal is struck and soon, Bianca learns there’s a great deal of work involved in being popular.
At the beginning of this review, I mentioned several films that are considered classics of the high school, teenaged angst genre. All these films treat high school students with a level of respect that lesser films don’t. The same can be said for “The DUFF” as it views its subjects as more than the expected caricatures of the pretty but shallow girl, the dumb jock and the nerd. It sees these young people as just that…people. People who have good points and bad points but, for the most part, try to be good and decent to each other; that is until something happens that is an embarrassment for one student, then it’s like sharks in a feeding frenzy. Kids can be cruel but they aren’t always out to belittle others. “The DUFF” understands that and has created characters that aren’t the typical cliché. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also very funny as well.
The script, written by Josh A. Cagan and based on a book by Kody Keplinger, is chock full of great jokes. Some are the kind based on reactions and quick responses while others are actually set up’s and punchlines. “The DUFF” delivers more laughs per hour than most other comedies. This is in no small part due to Mae Whitman. The young actress is fantastic with a snappy quip. What makes her even better is that it all seems very natural for her. Whitman, who just completed her role in TV’s “Parenthood,” never appears to be hamming it up when she’s in a comedic film. Her natural charisma and “every-woman” attitude makes her an appealing actress in a wide variety of roles. She played one of the exes in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World,” a movie I really liked, and despite the over-the-top nature of the character, never looked like she was trying too hard. When given a role that is very outside the box, some actors (like Tommy Lee Jones in “Batman Forever”) are obviously working hard at being wild and crazy. Whitman can pull that off effortlessly. She is the kind of actress you would think would be great to go to lunch with and just talk. She seems like she’d be a great deal of fun and completely accessible. I think I have a crush on her. Did I just type that?
The rest of the cast is also very good to great with a special commendation for Robbie Amell. While he’s the head jock of the school, Wesley hasn’t abandoned his old friends. Amell, cousin of Stephen Amell from the TV show “Arrow,” is a very handsome, well-built young man; yet he is able to seem friendly and not full of himself, at least in this role. Wesley can be dumb and slow-witted; but is also capable of pushing past that and applying himself when he must. Amell has an easy smile and a laid-back attitude that is unthreatening. He comes across on screen like just an average guy who happens to look like he was chiseled out of marble.
Also deserving of an honorable mention is Ken Jeong as Mr. Arthur, a teacher at the school. While his role is small, Jeong usually makes the most of his screen time. Jeong is a gifted comedian and it appears he was allowed to improvise in some of his scenes. When we first meet Mr. Arthur, he goes on a little rant that is extremely funny. Jeong’s performance must be seen to truly be appreciated. He has made a career out of scene stealing in several movies. He’s one of the best things about “The Hangover” and is the only really good performance in the third “Transformers” movie. He also has some of the best outtakes that are shown at the beginning of the closing credits.
Despite all the good in “The DUFF,” there is a little bad as well. The story is too Pollyanna in the way it wraps up. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but I bet you can figure out what I mean. It follows a predictable path that gives the hero and the villain the endings they appear to deserve, not one that rings true. I suppose the target audience for the movie would rush away in droves if “The DUFF” ended in a way seemed logical and realistic; but a little truth and honesty would have been appreciated.
“The DUFF” is rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material, teen partying and some language. As one would expect for a high school movie, sex is discussed in a crude and borderline pornographic way. There are also a couple of scenes of people kissing passionately. There is a large party where teens are seen drinking from the ubiquitous red plastic cups. What they are drinking is not discussed and no one is shown being drunk. Foul language is common and the film uses its one ratings-allowed “F-bomb.” However, it is used very well.
While it wraps up too neatly, “The DUFF” gives us as accurate a look at high school life in the age of social media as a PG-13 rated comedy probably can. Thanks to a funny script, a respect for its subjects and a very likable cast, “The DUFF” may one day be viewed as a classic teenage film the way some of John Hughes movies are. If you have a chance, see it before it leaves theatres.
“The DUFF” gets five stars out of five.
Two new movies open this week and I’ll see at least one of them. Check out their trailers below.
The Lazarus Effect—
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