Saturday, March 07, 2015
The DUFF aims high from its opening voice-over. Bianca (Mae Whitman) invokes hallowed words from The Breakfast Club ("...a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess....") in acknowledgement of the classic high school class system, but in fact this tart comedy doesn't want to subvert the old pecking order so much as blow it up. At first glance Bianca looks like someone who'd be in detention with Ally Sheedy, but in fact she's best friends with the popular Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos). Whitman's Bianca is a flannel-shirt wearing horror film buff nursing a crush on a guy (Nick Eversman) but resigned to living vicariously through her friends until she runs out the clock on senior year. Plans change when Bianca's football star neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) tells her she's a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for Jess and Casey, and Bianca's efforts to make herself more datable bring her social media shame. Wesley isn't being mean - he doesn't really think Bianca is fat or ugly - just honest. Bianca, like everyone else, should know her place. The fine line walked by writer Josh A. Cagan (adapting a novel by Kody Keplinger) has to do with the fact that Bianca doesn't want to turn herself into someone acceptable to the school's Queen Bee (Bella Thorne) but rather just to understand herself a bit better. There's a montage of Bianca trying on clothes, but it's played for slapstick comedy and the moment when Bianca shows Wesley how "girls like to be kissed" is turned into a joke. If everyone is happy with who they are then labels lose their power.
Mae Whitman is 26 years old and has been a working actress for over 20 years. (Her first IMDB credit came in this 1994 film.) If The DUFF is her last high school role then so be it, but she was exactly he right person for the role. Whitman's natural humor and vulnerability give all sort of shadings to a part that's required to carry the film, because with the exception of Allison Janney as Bianca's mom all the other characters exist to serve a plot point. I'm not sure that we'll all be quoting The DUFF in 30 years, but the film is a winning and honorable crack at a story of teenage self-empowerment.