Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ari Sandel
Stars: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Allison Janney, Ken Jeong, Skyler Samuels, Bianca Santos, Nick Eversman, Romany Malco, Chris Wylde.
The dynamics of high school years are fertile material for filmmakers who can explore this psychological minefield of cliques, bullying, pecking orders, identity, and entrenched attitudes. It is a setting that has given us some great films, with John Hughes’ classic The Breakfast Club, Heathers, Mean Girls, Juno and Easy A amongst the standouts in this subgenre. And now we get The DUFF, which explores how social media and cyber bullying have become the norm in tormenting and persecuting unfortunate misfits and school kids. But despite treading some familiar ground, The DUFF is an unexpected surprise and much better than it sounded on paper.
The central character here is Bianca (played by Mae Whitman, from tv series Parenthood, Arrested Development, and also George Clooney’s daughters in One Fine Day), who is intelligent but something of an outsider at school. But with a combination of unorthodox fashion sense, a love of horror movies and a complete indifference to some of the traditions of high school, like the prom, she has become the target of the vindictive queen bitch Madison (Bella Thorne) and her posse of sycophants.
Bianca has been best friends with the beautiful and popular Casey and Jess (Skyler Samuels and Bianca Santos) for years. Then one night at a party thrown by Madison Bianca first learns that she is Casey and Jess’ DUFF (a frankly offensive acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend). In other words, she is the unattractive but approachable member of the trio and boys feel comfortable using her as a source of information about her two hotter and seemingly aloof friends. In anger, Bianca immediately breaks off her friendship with Jess and Casey. She is interested in the long haired guitar playing Toby (Nick Eversman), but feels overwhelmed and nervous and has been unable to say three words in his presence.
But her attempts to try and change lead to further embarrassing and humiliating experiences. In desperation, she turns to the hunky Wesley (Robbie Amell), the school jock and captain of the football team and her next door neighbour, for advice about how to change her appearance and demeanour. In exchange for a much needed makeover she will help Wesley pass his science classes and thus remain on the football team. And instead of trying to change the unflattering label, she learns that it is more important to own it and use it to her advantage.
Wesley wavers between being a nice guy and sympathetic towards Bianca’s plight and being a bit of a jerk who often says or does the wrong thing at inappropriate moments. But while giving Bianca a makeover the pair seem to grow closer. Anyone who has seen enough of these sorts of films will know where it is headed. And of course it climaxes at the school prom.
A sort of Pygmalion for the technology savvy cyber generation of the 21st century, The Duff is based on the young adult novel written by Kody Keplinger, who has obviously drawn upon some personal experience to shape her insights into high school and its politics, but she also occasionally subverts the usual cliches. The film has been adapted for the screen by Josh A Cagan (Bandslam, Undergrads, etc) who has a strong understanding of the tropes of this genre and brings some wit and sensitivity to the material. The film has been directed by Ari Sandel (tv show Aim High, etc) making his feature film debut here. In an early montage sequence, Sandel trolls through the main characters’ social media profile to give us a quick snapshot and establish their identities. And he fills the screen with hashtags and text messages. There are also a few moments here that are a little too raunchy and risqué for the film’s demographic.
Whitman brings an intelligence and feisty quality to her role as Bianca. Amell, who has worked extensively in television in series like The Flash, etc) has the quality of a young Tom Cruise about him, from the cocky attitude to the flashy grin. Amell and Whitman develop a nice chemistry here that makes you overlook some of the cliches and improbable moments in the screenplay.
Thorne makes for a wonderfully nasty school bully, whose shallow, self absorbed nature make her seemingly suitable for a future in reality television. Ken Jeong, who was so annoying in The Hangover series, provides some much needed comic relief and actually brings a bit of restraint to his performance as Mr Arthur, a journalism teacher who obviously sees Bianca’s potential and gives her an assignment to write about the upcoming high school prom. And the always reliable Allison Janney is great in a small role as Bianca’s mother, a bitter divorcee who turned her life around and became a self-help guru who spouts aphorisms and catch phrases as advice.
The DUFF is a lightweight and occasionally derivative film, but it offers a refreshingly contemporary look at todays’ society and its obsession with image and technology, and will certainly resonate with its target audience.