Overview: An intelligent high school student is distraught to learn of a social concept that places her in an unflattering light. CBS Films. 2015; PG-13; 110 Minutes.
Daring: DUFF is an acronym that stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” a concept positing that every social group has a least-attractive friend to serve as the approachable gatekeeper. Walking confidently into theaters in the current moment with this conceit serving as both its central plot tool and its title, The DUFF exhibits either a daring apathy or a complete lack of self-awareness. The character who introduces the concept is quick to backstep on behalf of the film. When he hurriedly explains that DUFF isn’t a gender specific label, and that DUFFs don’t have to be fat or ugly, it feels a bit formal, a necessary pre-apology for a gross concept. But by the end, when the film has co-opted the term to be a symbol of self-acceptance, the forgiveness is earned by sincerity.
Unmissable: I love this movie. And I think the main reason I love this movie is that it likes its characters more than most that are cut from the same cloth. The DUFF allows its characters to be flawed, and there is no polishing of personalities, physiques, or appearances. When the characters make a bad, off-color joke, as high schoolers are known to do, The DUFF frames it as such. When its two protagonists make judgments in error, The DUFF extends them forgiveness without rewriting viewers’ perception of the events. And, most importantly, the film allows its two stars to own and illustrate the characters in very human, very teenage terms. As Wesley, Robbie Amell is able to maintain an increasingly endearing personality without making his obnoxiousness seem a cheap trick. Mae Whitman, as titular DUFF Bianca, exhibits the best comedic timing one can hope to find in a teen comedy. Together, Whitman and Amell share a chemistry that is all their own, and it is through their performances that The DUFF becomes irresistibly funny and undeniably charming.
Freaking: The DUFF extends the logical progression built by past films The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, and Easy A, and, with its necessary minor adjustments, it actually improves upon the standard sub-genre template. Like those comparative films, The DUFF speaks toward the nightmare of developing self-worth in high school, that period of time where insecurities are strongest and the judgment of our peers is harshest. The DUFF is not the first film to point out that the social structure of high school has shifted and installed softer walls between cliques, and it’s not the first film to point out that modern students — with the endless, unpluggable network of social media — face constant judgment and inescapable social pressure. But it is the first film to make both of these observations in way that is useful, insightful, and fun.
Fantastic: Director Ari Sandal and writer Josh A. Kagan (adapting the novel by Kody Keplinger) never subject Bianca to that Ally Sheedy/Rachel Leigh Cook moment wherein a hair shake and the right lipstick reveal that our “plain girl” hero has had stunning, magazine-worthy beauty hiding underneath all along. These such gestures only reinforce the beauty standards which create the insecurity in the first place. Instead, Bianca is allowed to succeed on her own terms, by being who she was in the beginning. The DUFF isn’t trying to say that everyone can be beautiful, but rather that everyone is just everyone. And that’s beautiful.