By: Scott Harvey, Columnist
“The DUFF” is in the great tradition of high school movies where every character is more of a category than an actual person. There are nerds, jocks, popular girls, yada yada. You have all seen “Mean Girls.” You know what I’m talking about. What is different about director Ari Sandel’s film, however, is that it introduces us to a new category: DUFFs. As the film’s resident quarterback Wesley (Robbie Amell) tells the protagonist Bianca (Mae Whitman), DUFF stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” In other words, DUFFs are the kids who have friends that are more popular and attractive than they are, a social fact which essentially makes them middlemen. They are someone who can be easily approached and befriended, thus opening the door to a relationship with their more popular friends.
I must admit I am not actually sure that “DUFF” is a term that people use. What I do know is that, despite its hip title, this is yet another tale of social acceptance that presses a lot of familiar buttons. Even though Bianca, the main character, is a “DUFF,” it is clear from the very beginning that she is going get caught up in a good, old-fashioned love triangle with her long time neighbor Wesley, who offers to “un-DUFF” Bianca if she helps him with chemistry, and Toby (Nick Eversman), the stoner-y guitarist that Bianca had a crush on for as long as she can remember. Naturally, questions abound: Who will Bianca choose? Do either of the guys actually care for her? Or are they just using her to get to her more popular friends (Skyler Samuels and Bianca Santos)? Most importantly, does anyone actually care?
Certainly there are things to like about “The DUFF.” The cast is one of them. Mae Whitman, who you will probably recognize from other projects like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Arrested Development,” really shines in her first starring role. She’s got great comic timing and remains a charming protagonist throughout. Speaking of great comic timing, there’s also a raucous supporting turn from the incomparable Allison Janney as Bianca’s mother. Allison Janney is one of those actors who, upon seeing her come on screen for the first time, you may feel the urge to loudly exclaim “Yes!” Yet again, she does not disappoint. Faring worse are Amell and Eversman, who never really rise above their stereotypical characters. The same goes for Bella Thorne, as the “most popular and beautiful girl in school,” Madison, who also happens to be a horribly vile and repulsive bully. Watching Thorne’s performance is an experience akin to listening to “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith. The feeling of déjà vu is overwhelming.
Indeed, most of “The DUFF” gives off the same feeling. I was intrigued by the opening of the movie, which seems to acknowledge the way in which high school politics have changed in the twenty-first century, specifically in the way jocks are now not as popular while nerds have achieved something of a cult status. It is the kind of wise, knowing observation that a movie like “21 Jump Street” milked some great comedy from. Unfortunately, though, right after “The DUFF” tells us that high school is not like it used to be, it gives us a high school that is exactly like it used to be, with the same stock characters and tired cliches. The script also tries to be fresh and postmodern by inserting casual references to Tinder, Pinterest, and about a billion other social networks, but it fails so spectacularly in employing these references that instead of sounding hip, “The DUFF” sounds kinda like it was written by your grandfather.
Ultimately, the movie does hit something of a stride in the last 20 minutes. The message that it leaves the audience is one that is still relevant and important: all of us are DUFFs. You can choose to accept it or go on living in ignorance. In this case, however, maybe it is better just to bypass this DUFF and go straight to one of its more attractive friends like “Clueless.” Go watch “Clueless.”