The DUFF (2015)
Every DUFF has their day
Even before the term DUFF — which stands for, Designated Ugly Fat Friend — entered the high school vernacular, there have always been inherent ‘understood’ differences within social circles. It seems that everyone has had, at some point in their life, a friend, or friends, who are noticeably more attractive, smarter or more talented. Then there are those on the opposite end of the scale, friends who may not be as good-looking, intelligent or gifted. Produced by filmmaker McG — who has directed six feature films and three television pilots that have gone to series — and based on the Kody Keplinger novella of the same name, The DUFF is the latest teen drama/comedy to hit the big screen. This sharp picture, to some extent, investigates the effects of ‘labels’ and ‘stereotypes’ within the high school setting — where classification is at its most unambiguous — and illustrates our tendency to compare ourselves against others — be it image, wit, aptitude, social status, etc — creating limitations on ourselves; restrictions that often hold us back from realizing our full potential.
While the book and movie share the same name, their plots are entirely different. The film follows Bianca (Mae Whitman) an ‘average-looking,’ relatively content, high school senior, attending Malloy High School, whose world is instantly shattered when she learns that the entire student body refers to her as ‘The DUFF,’ comparing Bianca to her hugely admired, stunningly gorgeous best friends; kind-hearted Jess (Skyler Samuels) and tough-girl Casey (Bianca Santos). With her universe turned upside down, and despite words of caution from her journalism teacher, Mr. Arthur (Ken Jeong) — mentor/surrogate father to Bianca — she enlists the aid of Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), the slick, charming star quarterback — who happens to be Bianca’s next-door neighbor and childhood friend — to help ‘pretty her up,’ so to speak, in an attempt to set her apart from the pack and erase her ‘tag’ forever. In doing so, Bianca hopes to get noticed by her current crush, dreamy musician Toby (Nick Eversman), find the confidence to overthrow the school’s label-making queen bee, ‘mean girl’ Madison Morgan, (Bella Thorne) — a character that does not exist in the novel — and save her senior year from becoming a total disaster.
Following the likes of Easy A (2010), Mean Girls (2004) and many other similarly themed teen flicks, The DUFF is, in essence, a coming of age film which tackles some serious real life issues, present in today’s contemporary environment; the picture explores the perils of the high school landscape — where adolescents begin to question themselves, become sexually aware, and emotions run rampant — in a era where social media is an unavoidable part of daily life. The DUFF sees its protagonist, Bianca, navigate through the pain and embarrassment of being categorized and bullied, not just in private but also in public, highlighting just how pervasive and damaging social media can be. Within the feature however, we see Bianca overcome her ‘labels’ through ownership, eventually taking them in her stride rather than opposing or challenging them: be who you are and be proud of it. In addition, the film cleverly comments on rumors and how they can spread like wildfire in modern social circles, particularly through the online platform. First time director Ari Sandel, screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, Bandslam (2009), and the entire cast seem to fully appreciate the importance of shining a light on this widespread culture — a social pecking order with a mentality of publicly tearing others down — presenting the heavy subject matter of online harassment in a lighter, rather enjoyable, humorous package.
When it comes to narrative structure, screenwriter Cagan interestingly turns to the Kubler-Ross model of the five stages of death — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — albeit a seemingly odd device for a comedy, this mold surprisingly works in giving the flick a clear beginning, middle and end, applying the five emotional stages to the main character, Bianca, who feels that her senior year is over upon discovering her unfavorable DUFF status. This idea is introduced into the picture through Bianca’s often emotionally unavailable mother, Dottie Piper — brought to life by Allison Janney, an actress who’s made quite an impression as ‘the mother’ in a handful of beloved comedies, such as Juno (2007) and Hairspray (2007) — a small-time self-help guru and motivational speaker, a clear byproduct of an unhappy divorce — those familiar with the novel would no doubt notice that the parental roles are reversed in the film, as in the novel, Bianca is raised by her father, with her mother physically absent from her daughter’s life.
The DUFF is headlined by a team of very funny, highly gifted performers, with the talented Mae Whitman, a young and experienced film and television actress, filling the pivotal yet tricky role of the titular DUFF a.k.a. Bianca Piper, to a tea — someone who’s not ‘unattractive’ or ‘unintelligent,’ but rather, a girl who doesn’t quite measure up to her group of friends in the high school hierarchy system. One might suggest that Whitman is neither ‘Fat’ nor ‘Ugly,’ however, the term DUFF — Designated Ugly Fat Friend — is not a label to be taken literally, as it simply implies that a person is the most ‘approachable’ or ‘ordinary’ within a particular cluster or group. Pressing forward, Whitman enthusiastically owns the part, keeping the character of Bianca grounded and authentic by crafting a leading lady who the audience can relate to, sympathize with and justly root for; it’s a real credit to the rising starlet, who embodies the multilayered protagonist effortlessly, as Whitman more-or-less anchors the entire picture.
And how can any teen-movie be complete without the quintessential handsome jock, with Canadian-born actor Robbie Amell, from television’s The Flash (2014) — though, about ten years older than his co-star Whitman — implanting the hunky Wesley Rush with depth and humanity, a stereotype usually categorized as brainless and shallow. Let’s not forget the archetypal ‘bitchy’ popular girl, Madison, played by the auburn-haired Bella Thorne, Blended (2014). While Madison comes across as somewhat generic for a vixen-type character, Thorne displays decent comedic timing and has subtly added a nuance of innocence and gullibility to a routinely one-dimensional typecast, as Madison is a she-devil obsessed with — and almost entrapped by — social media, which, unlike Bianca, seems to affect her entire being. Other noteworthy support players include, a comical Ken Jeong, The Hangover (2009), as Bianca’s favorite teacher, Mr. Arthur, with Jeong’s performance being an evenhanded fusion between humbly honest, lively and outrageously quirky, while a scene-stealing Romany Malco, Top Five (2014), plays Principal Buchanon, an out-of-touch headmaster, who thinks he’s ‘cool,’ though really happens to be somewhat old-fashioned and rather naïve when it comes to modern technology, mispronouncing popular online networks Instagram as ‘Instant Gram’ and Pinterest as ‘Pine Trest.’
Never quite reaching the heights of other, slightly superior, American teen comedies, it’s hard not to see The DUFF becoming an instant classic within its demographic. Undeniably ‘updating’ the teen comedy genre for the 21st century, Ari Sandel and his skilled creative team have pieced together an entertaining, thought-provoking, subversively snarky picture, with sincere heart and a moral message about self-worth, reminding audiences that no matter how we look or act, the fact of the matter remains, everyone is someone’s DUFF and everybody has a DUFF, and that’s totally fine.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner
The DUFF is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia