The Duff makes timely points about self-love, body image, and modern relationships but falls short of becoming a teen drama classic.
For years, Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) has successfully navigated the soul-crushing hallways of high school. Side by side with her two best friends, Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), Bianca has been encouraged to take-pride in her personal quirks, casual style, and love for classic zombie movies - while managing to ignore the vain opinions of "pre-celebrity," and bully, Madison Carter (Bella Thorne).
That is until Bianca's childhood friend, and school football hero, Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell) points out that she is a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), forcing her to question close friendships as well as her chances with Toby - Bianca's cultured (sushi-loving and guitar-playing) crush. In an effort to prove that she isn't anyone's DUFF, Bianca teams-up with Wesley (in exchange for Chemistry tutoring) to reinvent her image and recapture her former devil–may–care confidence. However, as Bianca becomes increasingly fixated on proving she isn't a DUFF, she also realizes that a life-changing fight is at hand - one that is much bigger than catty labels on Urban Dictionary.
Based on Kody Keplinger's 2010 novel of the same name (which she wrote her senior year of high school), The DUFF was adapted for the big screen by writer Josh A. Cagan (Bandslam) and director Ari Sandel (Aim High). Fans of the book will definitely notice that Sandel's treatment is a streamlined version of the printed source - abandoning many of the novel's more melodramatic, and overtly sexual, elements in favor of a straightforward tale of teenage self-empowerment (as well as romance). The book has been celebrated for its portrayal of modern teen relationships and high school bullying but the film story is filtered through PG-13 high school comedy tropes. The result? A humor-filled drama for the current high school crowd - since The Duff makes timely points about self-love, body image, and modern relationships but falls short of becoming a teen drama classic (e.g., Easy A, She's All That, and 10 Things I Hate About You).
As indicated, the narrative contains timely elements that will resonate with Generation Z - from the affect of social media on high school culture to the age-old challenge of balancing personal expression with popularity. Yet, like most Hollywood productions, The Duff leans heavily on pop culture nods and period-specific situations that will eventually date the movie - for the sake of pandering to the current audience at the expense of older moviegoers or viewers who might watch the film years later (when Snapchat is no longer a household name, for example). Still, even though select jokes and references lend more style-than-substance, the core storyline offers plenty of worthwhile material - especially as Bianca finds peace and a healthy perspective on her DUFF label.
Fortunately, Sandel assembled a strong cast - with amusing, albeit pretty one-note performances from several familiar faces: Bella Thorne (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), Allison Janney (Juno), Ken Jeong (The Hangover), and Romany Malco (Weeds). Though, in spite of quality supporting talent, there's no doubt that Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell help elevate The DUFF above standard teen fare. After appearing as a side character in several cult-hit TV shows and films (Arrested Development, Parenthood, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Whitman proves that she can carry a lead role as Bianca. Keen comedic timing and charming whit, as well as comfort in her skin (alongside a cast of skinny blonde actresses), ensure that Whitman is practicing, in her own performance and larger career, what The DUFF preaches.
That said, while Whitman lays a strong foundation in the main role, the actress and the film are at their best when paired with Amell's sincere and downright endearing take on standard high school jock cliches - as Bianca's childhood friend, and neighbor, Wesley. Even when Whitman and Amell stretch to sell a few of the story's more melodramatic plot beats, their onscreen friendship provides enjoyable banter (and some fresh twists on prior teen drama outlines).
It's satisfying to see an industry staple like Whitman (who played President Whitmore's daughter in Independence Day) get deserved time in the spotlight but Amell steals nearly every scene - transitioning Wesley from caricature to a semi-layered male counterpoint for Bianca. The DUFF might not be the most nuanced drama of the year but, alongside a downright captivating role in The Flash, Amell's ability to make Wesley a standout entry in an already robust cast proves the up-and-coming actor is more than just a TV heartthrob (or second fiddle to his Arrow-starring cousin).
Ultimately, The Duff does little to break from its teen drama format but, at the same time, provides worthwhile (albeit mostly superficial) updates to timeless genre tropes for current PG-13 viewers. While it does not reinvent the teen movie wheel, The Duff still touches on intimate subjects that are worthy of revisiting - especially in a culture that has become increasingly obsessed with social perception. For that reason, Sandel's film isn't likely to win-over older moviegoers who have seen similar storylines explored before, especially within the periphery of their own high school experience, but in terms of overall execution, The Duff is a successful adaptation - and should provide entertaining (and relatable) viewing for its intended audience.
The Duff runs 130 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying. Now playing in theaters.
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