Long before I ever watched The DUFF, I had a secret beef with it. For those not in the know, DUFF is an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. But it wasn’t the crassness of the film’s title that bothered me; it was the fact that the movie’s titular DUFF, Mae Whitman of Arrested Development and Parenthood fame, is neither ugly nor fat. She’s actually quite attractive and thin. If you’re going to make a film about a DUFF, you’d better get somebody that looks like Bruce Vilanch to star in it, otherwise you lose the audience’s trust right off the bat.
So when the lights went down in the packed theater, I was more than ready to rip into this movie. I was ready to unleash a whirlwind of Women’s Studies 101 sass on its unrealistic standards of beauty. It was going to be glorious.
But then a funny thing happened. Within the first 15 minutes, The DUFF addressed my complaint. By the film’s definition, a DUFF doesn’t have to be ugly or fat; he or she just has to be approachable, a gatekeeper to hotter friends. It was as if screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, whose script is based on the popular YA novel by Kody Keplinger, had read my mind. The film was treating its audience with respect, like they actually had some intellect. This is a rarity in modern teen movies, and, as it turns out, The DUFF is loaded with unexpected surprises like this.
Sadly, the derivative plot isn’t one of them. It seems to be cobbled together Frankenstein-style, borrowing chunks of every other teen movie released in the past 30 years. The paint-by-numbers story begins by introducing us to the players. There’s Bianca (Mae Whitman), an honor roll student and horror movie nerd who wears flannel and overalls, and her two statuesque besties, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). Then there’s the requisite mean girl, Madison (Bella Thorne), and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Wes (Robbie Amell), Bianca’s next-door neighbor and former childhood chum.
As they’re introduced, each character is accompanied by their own on-screen hashtag — Bianca is #TheOtherOne, Madison is #TheFutureRealityStar — to establish the narrative theme of labeling people, as well as to let viewers know that the film is in on the joke, that these kids are all archetypes. But their prescribed social roles soon get shaken up at a party, when Wes lets it slip that Bianca is a DUFF. Horrified by the revelation, she decides to try changing her schlubby lot in life. She quickly enlists Wes, a popular jock who you just know is going to fall for her, to help her win the affections of her crush, Toby (Nick Eversman).
The second act of the film unfolds almost exactly as you’d expect it to — with a barrage of scenes showing Bianca testing her pickup lines on strangers at the mall, as well as the Hollywood–mandated makeover montage. Director Ari Sandel, who’s best known for directing the teen web series Aim High, also makes sure to throw in a bunch of scenes of Bianca and Wes giggling to show how their friendship is blossoming into something more.
If you showed me this summary on paper, I’d probably puke in my mouth a little. But as I watched it, I found myself doing something completely unexpected: laughing. For the most part, The DUFF’s dialogue is surprisingly witty and void of saccharine clichés and too-cool-for-school references à la Diablo Cody. It also sounds relatively natural, peppered with dick jokes and slang terms like any real conversation between high schoolers. What’s more, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell have perfect comic timing and an undeniable chemistry. They’re so good that you begin forgiving The DUFF for some of its flaws … up to a point.
Late in the second act, this above-average, albeit predictable, teen comedy begins to heave under the weight of countless unnecessary subplots. Madison begins cyberbullying Bianca, the principal (an underutilized Romany Malco) imposes martial law on all cell phones, a teacher (an underutilized Ken Jeong) forces Bianca to write a feature about the upcoming homecoming dance against her will, and Bianca’s newly divorced mother (an underutilized Allison Janney) seems too busy to take interest in her daughter’s dating crises.
The film devolves even further as it limps towards the finish line. After The DUFF straight-up steals a scene from Pretty in Pink — Bianca attends the homecoming dance stag and wearing a hand-sewn dress — it becomes eye-rollingly preachy. Bianca delivers not one, but two long-winded speeches about the satisfaction of being yourself and the dangers of labeling people in the movie’s final scenes. It’s like listening to Christina Aguilera’s “I Am Beautiful” on a loop for 15 minutes.
The fact that The DUFF ends on a such a sappy, uninspired note isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing given all the little glimmers of promise peppered throughout the film’s first half. Hopefully this is only an embarrassing stepping stone on the way to bigger, better, and smarter projects for the movie’s two leads. They’re talented comedic actors, and they deserve much better. Then again, so does The DUFF’s audience.