by Ken B.
With its sugary blares of music and cinematography, flying text often coming in hashtag form, and incredible reliance on specific contemporary Internet culture, you have to wonder if The DUFF is going to invoke nostalgia for the mid-2010s or look horrifically dated in the future. Based on a novel written by Kody Keplinger, who was seventeen when she penned it, one of the things I have to commend the film for is its approach to modern high school life, notably more realistic and relatable than more detached observers create in less watchable movies and TV shows. Of course, considering this is a comedy, and a rather elongated one at that, we have our fair share of obviously twentysomethings playing teenagers and one-note caricaturing, with the latter partly contributing to the most apparent shortcomings. Yet with a nod to The Breakfast Club here and a smattering of Mean Girls there, the final product is self-aware (without being overly cutesy), resilient, and mostly enjoyable.
Mae Whitman leads the cast as Bianca Piper, a cult-film-loving high school senior, who writes for the school newspaper and is an “adequate violin player”. Her two best friends are Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). Casey and Jess are prettier, better dressed, and more popular than Bianca, but she doesn’t really note this disparity until one particular night – when at a party held by “future reality TV star” and self-obsessed Madison (Bella Thorne), for which she was barely invited to, Bianca is told point blank by jock and next door neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell) that she is a DUFF – a Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
A DUFF, Wes explains, doesn’t have to be literally Ugly or Fat, which Bianca arguably is not, but is rather the least attractive member of a friend group, there to make the others look better by comparison. Devastated by her token status, Bianca decides to cut ties with Casey and Jess and improve herself, with the end game of winning over her crush, Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman). She strikes a deal with Wes – if he helps her lose her DUFF designation, she’ll help him improve his chemistry grade and get back on the football team. But of course, say it with me, complications ensue.
I realize now that my plot description makes the movie sound vapid and pointless, and when I saw the trailer for it last year ahead of another film, it took all of my might to not harrumph like a 100 year old man and spit dismissively into the nearest object – which would have been my friend’s popcorn bag, and I don’t think he would have appreciated that (OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration of what I would have done). But now having seen it, I find that The DUFF has more going on than it initially seems. For one, Mae Whitman gives a charismatic and complex performance, taking her character’s development with energetic spin. Her chemistry with her costars, especially Amell, is brilliant. Bianca’s mother is played by Allison Janney, who has some great verbal and visual gags. On the other end of the scale, Ken Jeong’s supporting part as the advisor of the school paper is buffoonish to the point of being irritating, and Bella Thorne’s work as the insufferable Madison is equally disappointing, coming off as one-note, stilted, and jolting, although Thorne may not be fully to blame – the script gives her next to nothing in terms of character and so she can’t give much back.
The script, I found, is responsible for many of the movie’s recurring problems. For all of the moments where it’s acerbic, observant, and entertaining, there seems to be an equal number of instances where it’s repetitive, overt, and scattershot. The first third of the movie’s 101 minutes is very funny, the last third brings everything together, delivering some valid points and celebrating individualism, but the middle portion is a little less structured, feeling shapeless more often than not, with good jokes peppered in and out to keep you from losing total interest. But in the end, director Ari Sandel has to balance strengths – its performances, energy, and message – with weaknesses – a meandering screenplay with sporadic aim. He mostly pulls this off, and guides The DUFF to a level safely above its lowbrow setup.