Bianca (Mae Whitman, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is a DUFF. For those of you out of the know, that stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
Here's the thing. Despite the fact that Wesley (Robbie Amell, Struck By Lightning), Bianca's childhood friend turned high school jock, attempts to explain this label away as not necessarily implying that she is either ugly or fat, the damage has already been done.
Here's the other thing. Bianca is neither ugly nor fat. In fact, as fellow critic Sam Watermeier said after the screening, "I had a crush on her from the very beginning."
Based upon a book by Kody Keplinger, herself 17-years-old when she penned it and dealing with these types of high school clique issues, The DUFF, is a well-intended but fairly run-of-the-mill flick that likely qualifies more as a high school rom-com than it does a 2015 Mean Girls as many are likely to take it.
The DUFF isn't a bad film, but it's also not the film it could have been and it's also not the film I have a feeling Whitman, who also appeared in the darn near brilliant The Perks of Being a Wallflower, signed up for when she signed up to play a horror movie-loving geek who implodes her social circle after realizing this label she never knew existed might actually apply to her life.
Almost inexplicably, but to good effect, she looks to Wesley for help in resolving this dilemma and the two agree that he will help her step away from DUFFdom in exchange for her helping him pass chemistry and holding on to a desperately needed college scholarship.
Of course, there's another guy involved. Bianca has the hots for Toby (Nick Everman), a teen guitarist with dreamy hair, but she hasn't quite gotten to the point of being able to say more than three words to him.
Everything that you expect to be in The DUFF is in The DUFF, though to the credit of director Ari Sandel (Wild West Comedy Show) and the source material this is a smarter than usual teen flick that just never lives up to the fullness of its potential and, perhaps even more sadly, too often dips into the very stereotypes it preaches against.
Boy, does it preach.
Unfortunately, the preaching goes nowhere. After an entire movie in which the horrors of being DUFF are screamed from the mountain top, or at least from Think Rock, by the time all is said and done we're not only comfortable with the DUFF label but encouraging everyone to just accept being a DUFF.
From the social media send-off that Bianca sends to friends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos) to the fairly epic cyberbullying initiated by mean girl extraordinaire Madison (Bella Thorne), The DUFF is a film that exists squarely in this cyber age and squarely in a time when break-ups occur by text message with some regularity.
The major advantage that The DUFF has going for it is Mae Whitman, a far too good performer to let this film drift away into cinematic irrelevance. While it never reaches its full potential, neither does it ever drift into irrelevance. Whitman's Bianca is self-aware with just the right hints of vulnerability and, despite being neither fat nor ugly, Whitman plays her willingness to be wounded by this label so authentically that you kind of understand how even impossible to believe words can still hurt.
Robbie Amell, a relative newcomer with only one feature film to his credit, adds a bit more complexity and feeling to what could have easily been a one-note role. Allison Janney, as Bianca's mom and a woman who turned into a motivational speaker after a traumatic divorce, has fun with it all and adds just the right heart. Ken Jeong, who seems able to wring comedy out of even the most minor character, is good in a relatively brief appearance. As the school's principal, Romany Malco is for the most part wasted and Bella Thorne, as the queen of mean, is certainly never anything but mean but at least she does mean effectively.
The DUFF, with an $8.5 million production budget, may latch onto just enough of the teen/young adult population to make back its budget and then some. However, its long-term prospects are slight and it's likely that a good majority of its life will be on the home video market. While The DUFF may be filled to the brim with clichés, it approaches them with enough intelligence and sensitivity to build an effective if not entirely fulfilling film.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic