Review: The DUFF
The title acronym stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and although it’s not essential for the person in question to be fat and/or ugly, the gist is that it refers to that one friend who is less attractive than the rest and therefore makes the others look even more hot in comparison. Artsy zombie movie fan Bianca (Mae Whitman) isn’t the slightest bit fat nor is she ugly (Mae Whitman simply takes off her makeup for the role), but her two best friends (Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels) are super-hot in comparison, therefore it is explained to her by childhood best friend/neighbour (and extremely douchy jock) Wesley, that she is their DUFF. She’s the approachable girl that a nervous guy can talk to in the hopes of finding an ‘in’ with her hot friends. Angry and hurt by this previously unrevealed discovery, in a rash decision she cuts her pretty best friends from her life. Wesley (played by Robbie Amell) decides to take Bianca under his wing and improve her wardrobe choices and self-confidence somewhat in the hopes of improving her hotness to attract the affections of high school musician Toby (Nick Eversman). Oh, he’s getting something out of it himself of course, science tutoring. However, all this attention Wesley is paying to Bianca pisses off his Queen B (itch) girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne), the supposed hottest girl in school (Maybe if Jessica Chastain lookalikes float your boat. I dunno, am I missing something here?). Meanwhile, Bianca is asked by a teacher (Ken Jeong) to write a story on the upcoming prom, and she also begins to have second thoughts about dumping her two best friends. Chris Wylde plays another nerdy teacher, whilst Romany Malco plays the school principal, and Allison Janney turns up as Bianca’s self-absorbed, self-help guru mother.
Apparently fairly loosely based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, debut director Ari Sandel (who won an Oscar for his short “West Bank Story”) and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan (“Bandslam”) have come up with one of the better teen comedies of late. This 2015 does have elements of “She’s All That” and “Easy A”, but rest assured this is a much, much better film than either of those (or “Mean Girls” for that matter). I knew I was in for a smarter than average teen flick when the opening scene tips its hat to “The Breakfast Club” (one of the all-time greats of the genre) before pointing out that the jocks now play video games and the geeks run the world. That’s smart and true. I could gripe that so-called hot girl Bella Thorne (who doesn’t float my boat but was certainly miscast as Adam Sandler’s supposedly ‘mannish’ daughter in “Blended”) is far less attractive than the bodacious Bianca Santos, but that’d be nit-picking…and pervy. So I won’t.
Lead actress Mae Whitman’s so-called ‘DUFF’ is slightly overdone in terms of how obvious it is that an attractive girl has been made to look less flattering than she really is, but Whitman’s performance itself is solid. She’s a little weird, but manages to be sarcastic and cynical without Emma Stone-ing it (or “Juno”-ing it, if you prefer) to the point where she acts like she’s above everything. She’s quite likeable, in a snarky way. Since Patricia Clarkson has finally let someone else play the clueless mother of a teen for a change, we get the wonderful Allison Janney. Playing Whitman’s pant-suit wearing self-help guru mother, she’s awesome. Just is. Ken Jeong is also pretty funny as a nerdy teacher, a much more sedate performance than you might expect from him. Romany Malco is also amusing as a clueless and uncool school principal. Robbie Amell is amusingly douchy as Whitman’s dipshit childhood best friend whom you just know is the right man for her.
As for the concept itself, I can honestly say that even if there was no quirky label for it, DUFFs definitely existed in my day, and it wasn’t exclusive to a particular gender or social group, either. And any group could (and does) have at least one DUFF in it. In fact, the only real issue I have with the central conceit is that from my experience, you know exactly where you stand in the school social hierarchy very early on. You may not find your exact social circle or identity as such right away, but you’ll definitely know if you’re an outcast, hanger-on, or somewhat invisible. So I found it odd that Bianca wasn’t quite aware of her status when we’re introduced to her. I did find it curious that in today’s teen world, the jock is essentially Ducky and the ‘cool’ musician is essentially Andrew McCarthy. That’s not entirely how I remembered things from my teen years, so I guess things have changed. I was worried that the film was gonna go “She’s All That” and have the lead lose all sense of personal style and get a makeover by the end. It thankfully doesn’t quite go in that direction. Oh she definitely gets dressed up for the big dance by the end, but she ain’t no makeup-lathered teen beauty queen. She keeps her own quirky identity through to the end, just a little refined.
This teen comedy could’ve been “Juno” levels of annoying, but Mae Whitman’s innate dorkiness and humility/insecurity grounds it. I’ve definitely known my fair share of girls like Whitman’s Bianca, that’s for sure. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s consistently amusing and Allison Janney steals her every scene.