Director: Ari Sandel
Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney, Romany Malco, Rebecca Weil, Chris Wylde
MPAA Rating: (for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying)
Running Time: 1:44
Release Date: 2/20/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | February 20, 2015
The tendency for human beings to come up with new terms to demean our fellow man and woman is seemingly boundless, and The DUFF reminds us that it can be trendy, too. The term is an acronym for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend," and it's apparently used almost exclusively to describe a female whose friends are more attractive than she is. A character in the movie argues that it's not exclusive to a single gender, because, after all, he also has a "DUFF," whose highlighted in only a single shot in the movie.
Bianca (Mae Whitman, who is neither ugly nor fat by any rational standard, although the movie comes up with an excuse for that one, too) is the eponymous "DUFF," a teenage girl whom nobody notices because she's constantly in the company of her "hot" friends. She's there every moment, continually being reminded that she will never be one of the "hot girls" and, thus, will never have any real worth apart from being a "DUFF."
If it sounds petty and cruel, that's because it is. At least the movie realizes it, albeit in its own indirect way and after taking its sweet time getting there. The worthwhile lesson about self-respect that arrives by the end is almost as surprising as how obnoxious the term "DUFF" becomes over the course of the movie.
Everyone says it here. They use it as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. It appears as onscreen text during one sequence in which Bianca points out every "DUFF" in the school cafeteria. It's also used as the hurtful punctuation in a video of Bianca that's posted online as a way to bully and humiliate her into staying away from one member of the school's attractive elite.
The movie comes across as too eager to prove that it's hip to the ways of the youngsters these days, and it overcompensates by pounding away at its one note of supposed insight until it just becomes condescending. If one has never heard this term before, one will likely hate it around the 30-minute mark, solely because of its repetition. If a person already knows about the acronym, that individual will likely have it driven out of his or her system by the time the movie ends. In either scenario, the end result is probably a good thing.
Bianca learns that she's the "DUFF" to her best friends Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels) after Wesley (Robbie Amell), who was Bianca's childhood friend and is now the captain of the football team, points it out to her at a party. It doesn't mean she's fat or ugly, he argues, despite the meaning of the term. It's just a catch-all term (One is instantly reminded of the rationale of racists, homophobes, and other bigots who insist that slurs are "just words"). After Wesley calls her a "DUFF" enough times, Bianca throws a drink in his face. Later, she punches him in the nose. Every time he makes an offensive joke, she scowls at his ignorance.
Obviously, at least by the movie's strange logic, Bianca and Wesley are just covering up their romantic feelings for each other. This is where the movie's ultimate lesson gets a little murky (and the movie itself grows tediously formulaic). In the movie's third act, the screenplay by Josh A. Cagan (based on the novel by Kody Keplinger) gives a few characters speech after speech about how looks, popularity, and other superficial things mean nothing as long as someone is steadfast about and comfortable with the kind of person he or she is. It's a nice sentiment. Then we recall how much of the movie is spent watching Wesley shape Bianca from her old self into, well, the kind of person in whom he would take an interest.
It's not as sinister as sounds, though, because most of his lessons have to do with self-confidence. Then again, Bianca does find herself laughing at the same jokes that she previously thought were terrible and in poor taste. Perhaps it's for the best to just take the characters at their word on this one.
What's important is that we want to take them at their word. Most of that has to do with Whitman, who makes Bianca's sarcasm, growing self-assurance, and inherent social awkwardness endearing. Again, the movie is a little too in love with its self-proclaimed trendiness (There are a lot of references to different social networking websites, although they are slightly buffered by Bianca's decision to skip a dance for a Vincent Price marathon), so a lot of the humor feels forced. Whitman, though, shows a natural sense of comic timing that slightly compensates when the jokes fall flat (which is regularly). Amell, whose Wesley is enough of a jerk to keep us at bay for a while, turns out to be charming enough when necessary.
The DUFF doesn't work by any stretch, but it does develop a moral that—no matter how muddled it becomes under even minimal scrutiny—at least feels right. It's a shame so much of what comes before that feels wrong.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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