Written by Josh A. Cagan (screenplay), Kody Keplinger (novel)
Directed by Ari Sandel
Starring: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell
CBSFilms, Wonderland Sound and Vision
PG-13, 102 minutes
The worst teen comedies are painted with the heavy brush of this-is-what-adults-think-teens-are-like, starring actors that are too old to play even the collegiate versions of their characters. Throw in a little over-sexualization of underage girls and you have your run of the mill raunchy teen comedy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the The Duff was far from these tropes. While advertisements sold this film as an updated version of She’s All That, it is closer to Much Ado About Nothing than The Taming of the Shrew.
Mae Whitman stars as Bianca, who is the less glamorous companion to staggeringly beautiful best friends Jess and Casey, a truth of which she is happily ignorant. The cult film loving daughter of recently divorced relationship guru Dottie (played perfectly by Allison Janey), Bianca has the unkind observation of her Duff status pointed out to her by cocky, staggeringly beautiful boy next door Wesley, played by frequent CW star Robbie Amell. This cruel acronym stands for “designated ugly fat friend”, a phrase that absolutely no one wants attributed to themselves. Bianca takes it upon herself to shed her duffness and establish her own identity outside of her friends.
Much of the marketing of this film failed due to the fact that trailers presented this as an “ugly duckling makeover” when that is far from what takes place in the film. This is also counter to the source material, which no doubt did little to convince fans of the book to see the film. I have not read it, but many YouTube comments have convinced me that the film trailer bares little resemblance to the Kody Keplinger’s book outside of the title. In the movie, Bianca’s reaction to being called a duff is devastating, and the moment is masterfully portrayed by Mae Whitman. This isn’t an easily forgiven slight as seen in the trailer, it is one that makes her reconsider all of her close relationships. She seeks Wesley’s advice on how to not be the Duff, but this has less to do with a makeover and more to do with trusting the one person that gave her “real talk” (also not in the trailer, Wesley’s profuse apologies for being such an ass). There is no hint in advertisements of what follows, which is far worse than being called a Duff: being cyber bullied by Wesley’s vapid ex-girlfriend and YouTube star Madison, who insufferably refers to herself as pre-famous.
With the oversimplified portrayal of “Duff takes off baggy clothes, is suddenly hot” reveal seen in trailers, there isn’t even a hint of Bianca’s true character. She’s an extremely smart, funny girl that is confident enough to say what she wants, and knows exactly when to tell people they’re an asshole, which she does frequently and spectacularly. When she is at her lowest and literally has zero social currency to spend, Bianca doesn’t break, but instead decides she has nothing to lose and successfully pursues dreamy musician Toby. Wesley is given little credit in the trailers as well, presented as the heartless dumb jock. He is a far more developed love interest than in most female-led teen films, a rarity even amongst the best teen comedies. He’s as funny as Bianca (though more juvenile in taste), he deals with similar homelife strife, and is also fighting against stereotype. When Bianca brags about getting to spend an evening with “fellow intellectual” Toby, Robbie Amell deftly portrays the subtlety of Wesley’s hurt feelings by the insinuation that he is somehow less. Wesley is no more the dumb jock than Bianca is the Duff. Both characters embody the modern paradox of being more than what is seen at first glance, but still fighting to accept it themselves. Let’s call it social imposter syndrome: one may feel confident in an aspect of their identity but can still question how others perceive that within a larger context. Duffness does not exist without comparing yourself to others and how they see you. Bianca doesn’t regain her self confidence by winning the boy, it’s something she retains throughout the film and is reinforced by her friends. By the end of the movie, you’ll be rooting for the Duff and not because of a makeover.
Of course The Duff isn’t without cliche or weakness. The inevitable “love yourself” speeches are overly long and could have used the ample humor and wit on display throughout the rest of the film. The soundtrack was uninspired, which is unfortunate since a relevant and well-utilized song selection has the ability to elevate teen flicks. You know the filmmakers are phoning it in when Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation plays over a scene where – you guessed it – a character doesn’t care what other people think! The climax and somewhat predictable ending take place at a high school dance, which is the mother of all teen film cliches, but one that is forgivable in my eyes as long as it is satisfying (and it is here). This movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, but Bianca’s best friends are easily the most one dimensional characters. They are distinguishable only by the characteristics that Bianca attributes to each of them early in the film. By comparison, Bianca’s mother Dottie is more memorable with even less screen time. Not enough Allison Janney could easily be one of my biggest complaints of The Duff. That and the lack of diversity amongst the main characters. Bianca’s friend Casey is described as a “fiery Latina” more than once, which is made more uncomfortable by the fact that she was the only woman of color in the film.
I believe The Duff will have a healthy afterlife in VOD and has potential to reach cult status. It’s funny and sweet and extremely giffable thanks in large part to the charisma and subtle performances of its leads. Director Ari Sandel is clearly gifted with directing well-paced comedy, and relies on the actors’ performances to bring the laughs as much as the script. The irony is that the film has advertised itself as its most simplistic reading, a quick glance of a much more compelling story. This movie is not the Duff of teen flicks, but they sure tried to sell it that way.