There's no question that many outside of the film's core demographic looked at The DUFF with some skepticism, seeing it as the latest in a long line of young adult novel adaptations attempting to be the next cult hit (read: Mean Girls for a new generation). Those who actually saw the film, however, most likely left the theater pleasantly surprised - with actor Robbie Amell a certified scene-stealer (read our review).
The film's release helped ensure that Amell's star continued to rise, following an appearance as Firestorm on The Flash, and now in production on Barry Sonnenfeld's high-concept comedy Nine Lives. When we got the opportunity to talk to Amell on set, he could only praise the film and his cast - and revealed that his surprising turn in The DUFF came close to never happening at all.
To be clear, it's still star Mae Whitman (Arrested Development, Parenthood) who anchors the contemporary tale of love, body image, friendship, and coming-of-age. But The DUFF succeeds due to some surprising - and, it must be said, genuinely refreshing - changes to the typical teen comedy formula. For starters, it's Amell's character, the athletic 'Wesley Rush' who first informs Whitman's 'Bianca' that she is the 'DUFF' - the Designated Ugly Fat Friend - of her circle of friends. But it's also Wesley who winds up emerging as her best friend and true love.
Moviegoers will be used to one extreme or the other, with most teen stories relying on the bully or jock being taken down a peg, as the sensitive best friend decides to pursue a romantic relationship once and for all. It's an unexpected turn Wesley takes over the course of the film, and according to Amell, how the character first appears almost convinced him to pass on the film altogether:
"To be honest with you, I read the first 30 pages and I put the script down, and I almost didn’t pick it back up, because the character was that stereotypical douchebag. I know that guy. I grew up with that guy in high school. I didn’t want to do that. And my fiancé convinced me to read the rest of it. You found out that this guy does have a heart, he’s just young, and he’s just a bit of an idiot and says some things he probably shouldn’t. But it just takes somebody like Bianca, just a friend, to kind of call him out on his sh*t to change a little bit."
Amell, like Wesley, eventually came around - and the film was better because of it. But the credit for the film's fun can't be placed with either Amell or Whitman, since it was the chemistry of the two that elevated The DUFF beyond similar high school dramedy. Making it difficult at times to tell if the dialogue or physical comedy was actually scripted or improvised, it turns out that the on-screen banter began with a single, inappropriate joke during the audition process:
"The nice thing was, reading it, I definitely saw a version of myself in the character where I could just have a little more fun. I like the relationship between he and Bianca. The people at CBS Films were very cool, and in the meeting they said, “We want this movie to feel real and grounded and we’re going to give a lot of room for improv.” I’m such a huge fan of Mae’s, and I was before. I knew her work from Arrested Development and Parenthood.
"I knew there was a lot of improv background, so when I went in to chemistry read with her, I brought in a bunch of alternate lines. She never missed a beat. She was always right on top of them. But I made her laugh at one really inappropriate joke. We just got to kinda do that for five weeks, just try and make each other laugh and make it feel like these two people could actually have a relationship."
As one of the most criminally-underrated young comedic actresses currently working, it's no surprise to hear Amell praise Whitman's quick wit and improv skills (since the finished film put them on display from beginning to end). Although The DUFF may have fallen short of the tween-immortality of Mean Girls, it has clearly struck a chord with its target audience, no doubt due to its script - enough to change Amell's mind - and its leading lady.
Considering that some of the most beloved and iconic tales of high school angst and romance being their life aimed squarely at the hormone-fueled teens they seek to mimic, The DUFF possessing a strong message can only be a good thing. Add in a leading duo who both seem to be on the rise, and the movie is seeming more and more like a case of the stars aligning to remind skeptics that there are exceptions to every rule - and every over-stuffed genre.
Did you end up as pleasantly-surprised by Amell's performance and character? Are you relieved that the actor gave the script a second chance? Share your thoughts on the film in the comments, and stay tuned for our full interview.
The DUFF is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.