'The DUFF': Film Review

Charismatic leads lend heart to a lively but watered-down YA romance

A smart high-schooler gets a rude awakening to the intricacies of the pecking order in a comedy starring Mae Whitman.

Mean girls, crude guys, goofy teachers: The DUFF unfolds in the familiar terrain of High School According to the Movies, bringing its particular lessons in survival to age-old quandaries about popularity, identity and what to wear to homecoming. More a middle-of-the-road rom-com than a teen-spirit sendup, the pic weaves its lighthearted mix of silly and serious with increasingly heavy-handed spiels on self-esteem.

Working from the young-adult novel by Kody Keplinger (herself a teen when she wrote it), screenwriter Josh A. Cagen finds a middle ground between YA sermonizing and mild cheekiness, and director Ari Sandel inflects his narrative feature debut with the requisite speed-of-the-Internet social media component, energetic but hardly anarchic. He and his behind-the-camera collaborators give the production a generic sheen.

Though the feature will be at a disadvantage against the name power of the weekend’s other wide releases, its central pair of unlikely allies will engage young audiences’ sympathy. They’re smartly played by Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell, whose warmth and comic chops keep the movie buoyant.

Whitman, a member of the ensemble cast for the just-wrapped series Parenthood, stars as Bianca Piper, an opinionated honor roll senior whose best friends (Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels) are tall, slender, coiffed and always stylishly dressed. She’s none of the above, her sartorial choices tending toward old T-shirts and pajama bottoms. Offering unwelcome insight into her place in the social hierarchy, Bianca’s neighbor, handsome football captain Wesley (Amell), informs her that she’s the “designated ugly fat friend,” or DUFF, to her glamorous pals — the one who people approach in order to get to the others.

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The revelation puts Bianca in a tailspin. But just as Wes soft-pedals the cruelty factor, pointing out that “ugly” and “fat” aren’t necessarily meant literally, and that the catchall term is an equal-opportunity offender that can refer to boys too, the film quickly smooths over Bianca’s hurt in favor of high jinks. So too when it introduces such tough topics as cyberbullying.

Although her friends are encouraging and sincere, and nothing like the school’s reigning über-meanie, Madison (Bella Thorne, putting a sharp edge on an archetype), Bianca distances herself from them, determined to step out of their reflected light and shine on her own (Lesson No. 1). Toward that end, she embarks on a makeover program with none other than Wes as her adviser.

Given that they’ve known each other all their lives and can trade insults with the ease of siblings, it’s not as crazy a choice as it first seems. They strike a deal: She’ll help him pass chemistry and save his threatened athletic scholarship, and he’ll teach her how to attract the guitar-strumming artiste she pines for (Nick Eversman, who appeared briefly as Mick Jagger in Get on Up).

In a way that defies credulity but would make Oprah proud, Wes insists that Bianca be fitted for a better bra. Their foray to the mall turns into a wacky episode of What Not to Wear (or is that Straight Eye for the DUFF Girl?). Bianca’s embarrassing dressing-room antics — an extended bit of costume-driven shtick that Whitman embraces with flair — are caught on cameraphone by a frenemy, and the resulting viral video leaves her more alone than ever in the suburban school’s halls. But she’s as resilient as she is book-smart, and there’s no doubt that she’ll triumph on the road to discovering that DUFFhood isn’t a life sentence.

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A few adults are on hand to offer their version of moral support along with ace comic timing. Allison Janney is effortlessly complicated as Bianca’s concerned yet distracted single mom, a self-help maven spouting mnemonic-device pep talks. At school, the journalism teacher (Ken Jeong) is gently kooky, and the out-of-touch principal (Romany Malco, underused) sports an American flag lapel pin and lays down martial law on connected devices. End-credit outtakes hint at the higher level of unhinged the latter two might have contributed.

The movie’s richest and most surprising twist is that the All-American jock turns out to be simpatico, and not the usual egotistical dunderhead. Amell finds unexpected nuance in his character. As Wes and Bianca navigate the rules of the game, he and Whitman infuse formulaic teen snark with the depth of old souls.

Production companies: CBS Films, Wonderland Sound and Vision, Vast Entertainment
Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca Santos, Skyler Samuels, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney, Romany Malco, Christopher Wylde, Rebecca Weil
Director: Ari Sandel
Screenwriter: Josh A. Cagen
Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger
Producers: McG, Mary Viola, Susan Cartsonis
Executive producers: Lane Shefter Bishop, Steven Bello, Ted Gidlow
Director of photography: David Hennings
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Eric Daman
Editor: Wendy Greene Bricmont
Composer: Dominic Lewis

Casting: Angela Demo, Barbara J. McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes

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