The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>The DUFF</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - The DUFF

A high school student attempts to change her image when she mistakenly believes herself to be a 'DUFF' - a Designated Fat Ugly Friend.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ari Sandel

Starring: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Alison Janney, Ken Jeong, Skylar Samuels, Bianca A Santos

The '90s had Clueless. The '00s had Mean Girls. Now a new generation has an iconic teen comedy in the form of The DUFF. If you live in the UK or Ireland you might assume the title refers to a teen pregnancy, but here DUFF is an acronym, one the movie's protagonist Bianca (Whitman) discovers stands for Designated Fat Ugly Friend, which she mistakenly believes herself to be, setting her off on a quest to change her image to better find acceptance among her high school peers. If that sounds like a teen comedy cliché, it is, but The DUFF takes a fresh and whip smart look at the genre's well-worn tropes.
Bianca is perfectly happy with her life. She's an A student, enjoys watching Vincent Price marathons, and her two best friends - fashion obsessed Jess (Samuels) and sporty Casey (Santos) - are two of her school's most popular students. Her world is shattered however when next door neighbour Wesley (Amell), hero of the school football squad and on-off boyfriend of school bitch Madison (Thorne), informs Bianca that he believes Jess and Casey only keep her around to make them look better, introducing her to the title acronym. Bianca ditches her buddies and forms a pact with Wesley in which he will change her image in exchange for Bianca's help with his schoolwork.
The dynamics of teen culture have changed a lot since the era of Clueless and Mean Girls. High school kids are now more likely to be bullied by the school nerds, through the medium of social networks, than have their heads dunked into toilet bowls by jocks, who are now more likely to be sensitive nice guys. The DUFF is the first teen comedy I've seen address this shift, and a sequence in which Bianca becomes the victim of cyber-bullying is remarkably dark for this sort of movie and illustrates just how damaging this modern form of harassment can be. Meanwhile it's the school jock King Wesley who, despite his inflated ego and pecs, is ultimately the nicest character in the story.
Ari Sandel's film manages to play with the tropes of this genre in a fresh, satisfying and more believable manner than the countless generic high school comedies whose well worn path it treads on. We get the classic moment when the previously dowdy protagonist emerges down a staircase post makeover, but here it's acknowledged that she's no more appealing - "It's just me in a dress," Bianca remarks - and it's pointed out that she's in fact less appealing for selling out her true image. Compare that to the cruel treatment of Ally Sheedy's character in The Breakfast Club three decades ago. It's a reminder that, for all the modern world's faults, we live in a more accepting and inclusive era than we've ever experienced at any point in the past.
Whitman embraces her role whole-heartedly and delivers one of the most endearing performances you'll see all year. As her nemesis/paramour, Amell, the spitting image of a young Tom Cruise, has charm to burn. The supporting cast of adults includes the always great Alison Janney as Bianca's motivational speaker Mom and Ken Jeong as a teacher who hilariously tries a little too hard to be down with the kids. But this is Whitman's movie; let's hope she sticks around a little longer than Alicia Silverstone and Lindsay Lohan.