“The DUFF,” a pleasantly predictable cross between “Revenge of the Nerds” and “Clueless” – in the social media age – is a teen comedy about a high school girl who has a life crisis when she discovers that she’s the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.”
Of course, everyone on campus knows about Bianca’s status except Bianca. That is, until her jock friend spills the beans, and she goes into overdrive to become the Designated Unbelievably Fabulous Friend. What else is a girl supposed to do, particularly with the homecoming dance looming on the horizon?
You can probably guess where all this is going, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the tour de high school. And for the most part, we do, thanks to an appealing cast, some witty dialogue and a funny send-up of social media, which the film both embraces and mocks.
The story begins as we see how Bianca fits in – or so she thinks – with her beautiful, popular friends, before the earth-shaking DUFF revelation. To the film’s credit, Bianca’s best buds value her friendship and haven’t consciously designated her as anything. But hell hath no fury like a DUFF scorned, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, a furious Bianca “un-friends” her pals in the school library.
Now it’s makeover time, and Bianca (Mae Whitman) finds unlikely help in the form of the jock next door, Wesley (Robbie Amell), who agrees to help her socially if she can help him pass science. This film lives or dies on the chemistry between these two, and fortunately, Whitman and Amell deliver: We believe that these two very different people could hang out together.
Amell plays Wesley with a mix of charm, cockiness, insensitivity and vulnerability. He’s definitely a jock type, but he’s smarter than meets the eye – and always accessible. Let the Tom Cruise comparisons begin.
Whitman is also very good, but sometimes the script sacrifices her character complexities for a slapstick laugh, particularly in an extended sequence at the department store and an unfortunate dinner table scene with the guitar boy of her dreams.
Whitman shines in all her moments with Amell and with her go-getter mother (Allison Janney). Janney makes any movie or TV show better, and her first scene on the lawnmower (I’ll leave it at that) will rank as one of the best character introductions of the year.
Director Ari Sandel employs a lot of sight gags. The ones involving social media work very well; others, particularly the dream sequences, are hit and miss and take away from the story.
Overall, though, Sandel’s film has heart, some good laughs and a decent message. In this age of cyberbullying, that’s nothing to scoff at.
B STARS: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Allison Janney.
DIRECTOR: Ari Sandel.
WRITERS: Josh A. Cagan, based on Kody Keplinger’s novel.
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes.
RATING: PG-13 (crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying).