The DUFF stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” From that cruel acronym, we now have a movie designed to appeal to fans of the source material. Kody Keplinger wrote the book when she was 17 and a merry slave to high school clique clichés. But her sense of humor appealed to older readers as well—basically to anyone who hadn’t left behind the old teenage insecurities about looks, status, social stratification and feeling like a loser. We’ve all been there.
What happens in The DUFF could be treated as a tragedy (and has been, recently, in Men, Women and Children, among others). Here, it’s handled as a comedy of humiliation, pockmarked with smiley-face emoticons where you wouldn’t mind some real emotion.
The plot comes straight out of the old “Varsity Drag” musical Good News, the one about the approachable, unglamorous good girl who tutors the preening high school football hero and ends up falling in love. Mae Whitman, of Parenthood, plays Bianca, a high school senior and horror movie geek full of life, and smarts, and zippy comebacks. She’s “pretty enough for all normal purposes,” as Mrs. Webb says in Our Town, but because her best friends, played by Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels, are willowy, runway-ready creatures, our heroine is treated by the story as a dateless hag.
She learns she’s widely known as a DUFF from her longtime neighbor and frenemy Wesley, the callow jock (sensitive, deep down) played by Robbie Amell and his pecs. This early reveal is treated seriously, and Whitman’s enough of an actress to mine the scene for all the pain and honest feeling it’s worth. Then the film gets back to its mundane business of trashing her in larger and potentially more harmful ways, mainly for laughs. A covert video of Bianca, learning to babe it up under Wesley’s tutelage and expressing her lust for a sensitive, guitar-toting student, goes viral. Cyberbullying and bullying in general, emanating primarily from the meanest of the mean girls (Bella Thorne, shrill in a one-note role), is taken wholly for granted in The DUFF.
It all works out for Bianca, of course, and for some the movie itself, directed by Ari Sandel from Josh A. Cagan’s script, will work out sufficiently well, too. Whitman’s a wily cross between Janeane Garofalo and Ellen Page and in her scenes with her motivational-speaker single mother (Allison Janney), you sense a better movie lurking in the shadows.
The question with practically every movie besieged by an army of high school cliques and “types” is this: Does the movie recycle and exploit the clichés in the name of rising above them? This movie does, I think. Now and then you find a film such as 10 Things I Hate About You (thank you, William Shakespeare) or Easy A (thumbs up, Nathaniel Hawthorne) that goes beyond and messes, profitably, with the usual images, body or otherwise. The DUFF will no doubt strike a chord with many, but you know what would be revolutionary? Making a really good movie about a three-dimensional teenage female character that doesn’t start and finish with both eyes on the same old punishing character types.
The Duff (PG-13): ★★✩✩✩