“How could you guys not tell me I was your DUFF?”
If the term “Duff” (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) was an actual epithet prior to this film, I was completely unaware. The Duff is no valedictorian or even top ten in its class when it comes to high school movies. But it certainly earns its place on the honor roll. Everything is foreseeable and nothing is challenging, yet despite its genre conventions, it manages to bring a level of freshness most films like this completely miss. The Duff certainly is not as smart or original as it thinks it is. However, it’s an easy and entertaining movie for young adults with a good amount of backbone, delivering a positive message in finding your self-worth in who you are rather than how others outwardly label you.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is the Duff. Her overall wearing self just doesn’t know it. Attached at the hip with her best friends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), they’re a trio that’s been together since their earliest days as kids. It’s clear, at least to the audience, that Bianca is the odd woman out. While Jess and Casey have their eccentricities and quirks, Bianca is the lowest on the totem pole of the flawed high school social hierarchy. And from the onset she is oblivious. She goes about her formative days playing third fiddle to her more physically attractive friends. The Duff wears its emphasis on beauty rather thin, but the strong cast rises to the occasion when the story falls apart.
Wesley (Robbie Amell) is Bianca’s neighbor and old childhood friend, having lost their connection as they’ve grown and their circle of friends drifted them apart. Wesley is literally as stereotyped as his character could possibly be. High school quarterback, dating the bitchy / sexy prom queen, hopeful of a scholarship but suspended for grades, an alpha-male who can get any girl walking the halls of his castle. And he has no mute button. Wesley vomits out the truth with no censorship. He breaks it to Bianca that she’s the Duff and casually jokes about it. Apparently it doesn’t mean she is actually fat or ugly, just that she “friended up,” or hangs around people who are physically more appealing than herself. It’s hurtful to say the least, but Wesley is not a cruel character. Sure, he can be mean. But telling the candid and honest truth can be better than perpetuating insecurities with created lies.
That’s about as much as I need to share because the movie goes right where you expect it to go, and boy does it get there fast. It’d be impossible and negligent to review this movie and not mention its obvious predecessor and inspiration in Mean Girls. From the direction to some plot devices to the color of the film itself, there’s a clear resemblance to the ’04 classic. Although unlike Mean Girls, a movie entirely devoted to its characters, The Duff tightens up its world around the relationship between Bianca and Wesley. How they help one another achieve their respective goals. Surprisingly it really works, yet the devout centralization on only two people completely undermines the rest of the performances. Mean Girls, as malicious as it can be, is nice enough to share the wealth and fully develop every single person who comes onto the screen. In The Duff, many characters exist merely to serve the two leads, which is a route that does a disservice to both involved parties.
Like many representations of high school, The Duff is an exercise in hindsight. I imagine most will look back on the film after it’s over and say, “I knew that was gonna happen!” Because, like most burgeoning teenagers, lost on the brink of adulthood, a sense of understanding and perception is lost to badgering questions and an idealization of experience. For me, The Duff was as predictable as they come, mostly due to its conformity of the public’s expected depiction of the glorified high school days. With a throwaway villain played by the talented Bella Thorne and a practically invisible, yet extremely talented supporting cast, The Duff casually surfs along on the strength of its tremendous leads. Whitman and Amell are both outstanding in winning performances, but their unique senior portraits have been copied and pasted from more realistic, and simply better, iterations of the year so many of us have come to know as the most important of our lives.
“You need to realize you’re only as awesome as you think you are.”
Rating: 3 out of 5