Not in the same league as Easy A
The glaring issue with The DUFF, which is an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” a phrase I’ve never heard employed and warrants few other Google searches besides those relative to the film, but I digress, is that its leading female character is neither. If Mae Whitman can be called a “DUFF” with complete seriousness, it sends a brazenly wrong message to the teenage girls who will likely go see this film. If that was the only issue with The DUFF, that would be one thing, but the fact that shortly after Whitman’s character is called such a name, the person explaining the term to her says how you really don’t have to be fat or ugly to be a group of people’s “DUFF.” If the term isn’t even going to be employed with any kind of conviction or relevance in a film centered around such a moronic label, my questions are – why use the term and why make this movie?
The film concerns Bianca (Mae Whitman), a smart, eccentric teenage girl, who enjoys her individuality and her love for cult horror movies. She spends most of her time with Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), two popular girls who find themselves at the center of everyone’s attention whenever they walk through the hallways. Bianca’s crush is a musician named Toby (Nick Eversman), and her other vague friend is Wes (Robbie Amell), the star of the school’s football team, who is also her next-door neighbor. One day, Bianca attends a party hosted by the queen bitch of the school Madison (Bella Thorne), who is the typical high school queen bitch that does indeed exist but rarely to the extent of the cartoonish one Thorne portrays. It is at that party that Wes informs Bianca that she is the “DUFF” of her group of friends, or, as stated, the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” – someone the group keeps around to elevate the attractiveness of them. Bianca is appalled to realize this, and compromises with Wes in a way that will help her popularity and image be drastically changed around the school in exchange for use of her chemistry notes so Wes can pass chemistry and play on the football team once again.
Whenever I see a film like The DUFF, one so hellbent on profiling and worsening the cliches of high school by either dramatizing them to the point where they are almost unrecognizable in their stupidity and so determined to try and stay “hip” and ahead of its culture, I’m reminded of writer/director Larry Clark and his films about teenagers. Granted, his films on teenagers are raw, provocative, and vulgar, but they exert a kind of honesty and, unfortunately, are widely unseen by the public. When speaking on his films, Clark states how he wants honesty to triumph convention and easily-digestible drivel we’ve grown to accept. “Let everyone else have the b******,” he states, while he praises those who crave honesty in their depictions of teenagers and their culture.
Obviously, The DUFF isn’t trying to be provocative, although it warrants some comparison to the reality of teenagers versus how this particular film sees teenagers. Even comparing The DUFF to contemporary films of the genre, like Easy A and Mean Girls, it simply doesn’t work because it mistakes hipness for insight. Including pervasive hashtags that say such cringe-worthy things like “#MyFutureBabyDaddy” and “#Amazeballs” only work to obscure anything emotionally honest that could be explored in such a generation. Even Easy A, a film I heavily praised, not only managed to parallel a popular piece of literature, but satirized the entire genre and still managed to remain relevant and thoroughly entertaining. The DUFF is too half-baked and obsessed with juvenile convention to even consider it such a possibility.
Give Whitman credit, as not only filling the shoes of the “fat” and “ugly” role she was never supposed to play is something that she warms up to quite quickly, but for bearing the energy and heart needed to make such a performance and character likable. Also, I give Thorne a great deal of credit for being a contemptible figure to Whitman’s good-natured, often high-spirited one, despite functioning almost entirely off of over-embellished cliches and an eye-rolling dramatization.
The DUFF isn’t a terrible film, but its purpose and existence merit a barrage of questions. For starters, why create a senseless slang word that doesn’t even apply to the character you’re profiling in the film, and secondly, why erect such a project on lame, overdrawn cliches when there’s plenty of honest and real exploration to be done for teenagers? The cast is capable and high-spirited, doing a wonderful job at disguising the menial and overall unremarkable material, but the impact of this film on many teenage girls, despite the entirely sentimental and frothy ending, I fear, may have the opposite effect of what I hope is intended on part of director Ari Sandel and writer Josh A. Cagan.