Friday , February 20, 2015 - 12:00 AM
Adapted for the screen by Josh Cagan (“Bandslam”) from a novel of the same name written by Kody Keplinger, “The DUFF” has an awful trailer. Mae Whitman stars as Bianca, the titular DUFF (or Designated Ugly Fat Friend) to a couple of teenaged hotties Casey and Jess (Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels, respectively). In addition to this indignity, she is informed of her status via another hottie of the male persuasion, her lifelong neighbor and friend Wesley (Robbie Amell), whose sometimes mean-girl girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne), subjects Bianca to ridicule and bullying.
If this sounds familiar it’s because most of it is ripped off from other, better high-school teen angst movies you’ve seen. Then again, it may be familiar because so many of these incidents are shared experiences for nearly any American kid who attended high school.
For much of its first act, “The DUFF “ struggles to find its footing, or possibly its place amongst such familiar and well-trodden cinematic territory. Movies like “Mean Girls,” “Easy A” and even “Can’t Buy Me Love” eclipse whatever “The DUFF” is trying to do. However, its second act picks although its shoe-horning of an After-School Special morality into its third act bring it down a touch as a whole.
The moral of the story ends up being a twist on Ralph Waldo “Every man I meet is in some way my superior” Emerson: Everyone I meet is someone else’s DUFF — we’re all inferior to others in some way, and superior to them in other ways. In that much, we’re all puzzle pieces that when fitted together form a team. But that ethical group-hug is a little awkward when the cyber-bullying of the highest order Bianca endures at the hands of Madison is met with little more than a temporary denial of cell-phone privileges from the hapless adults.
The filmmakers also use social media and onscreen graphics as plot devices, as much a part of the story as any of the characters. It’s an interesting representation of our existence, which seems to be a hybrid of the virtual and the physical. In an age when so many of us live out our lives partially online, it’s a filmmaking choice that seems more authentic than gimmicky.
Another strength is the titular DUFF herself, Mae Whitman. Not only is she a good actor, but also she clearly is committed to making this material work, even if it’s not the freshest thing out there. An ace up the DUFF’s sleeve is Robbie Amell, whose self-deprecating charm is disarming, and the chemistry he and Whitman share in some key scenes buries anything seen in “50 Shades of Grey.” Romany Malco (Principal Buchanon), Ken Jeong (Mr. Arthur), and Allison Janney (Bianca’s mother Dottie) all show up in cameos that may be a secret weapon of “The DUFF,” although their characters are largely given short-shrift; playing oblivious adults who eventually have a moment of clarity for some unsupported reason.
The male characters in general are similarly undermined, as the object of Bianca’s affection Toby (Nick Eversman) proves to be just as vacuous as the rest of her peers, and even Amell’s Wesley is largely clueless when it comes to Madison and her maliciousness, again having a last-minute epiphany for no motivated reason.
Female characters don’t fare much better, if not on the page then on the screen. Whitman is the best thing about “The DUFF,” not only because of her talent, but because other than Amell, she stands out against the flat supporting cast. Thorne’s Madsion is not a challenging, cunning villainess; she’s simply shallow and mean. Bianca’s friends Casey and Jess are written better than expected — actual friends who don’t think of her as a DUFF and who come to her aid — but when played by Santos and Samuels, they are so bland and harmless they evaporate onscreen.
Sadly these weaknesses undermine many of the strengths “The DUFF” has, but they don’t bury it entirely, and in the end its intentions are just too good to overlook.
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