I’m going to be honest with you - I might spend a lot of time waxing lyrical about high art or groundbreaking cinema and throwing hyperbole at them like my life depends on it, but on top of all that, I really do love a good teen comedy. Stick me in front of ‘She’s The Man’ or ‘Easy A’ or hell, even ‘A Cinderella Story’, and you’ll find me a happy man. The thing is though, because I love the genre so much, I hold it up to some pretty high standards, and it’s surprisingly hard to get it right. So with that all in mind, I sat down to check out the latest teen flick to hit the multiplex, ‘The DUFF’.
But what, might you be asking, is a DUFF? This is where we hit our first potential problem. DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, the kind attractive people apparently have to make themselves look better by comparison. I hadn’t heard of this awful concept, and neither has Bianca (Mae Whitman) when she finds out that she might just be the DUFF to her two best friends. This doesn’t mean she’s actually fat or ugly, according to her daft football captain neighbour Wesley (Robbie Amell) - just that by comparison, she’s not quite as attractive or appealing. Burnt by the realisation to the point of unfairly rejecting her friends Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), Bianca strikes a deal with Wes, that she’ll help him pass science if he’ll save her from being a DUFF, and in the process, ignite the ire of Wes’ awful ex-girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne).
It feels silly holding a film like ‘The DUFF’ up to some sort of moral code, but what it’s dealing with at its heart is a pretty disgusting concept. The idea that such a label can exist is awful, and to an extent, the film makes some effort to point out that fact. The awful labels that are thrown at teenagers by other teenagers does come under attack in the film, particularly by Bianca who's far too intelligent and assertive to take it lying down. There’s an extent to which the film is trying to work against the expectations of those labels - they might be gorgeous, but Casey and Jess genuinely love and value Bianca and are independent women in their own right. Once Bianca starts to disappear into her obsession with breaking her label, as well as pursuing her love interest Toby (Nick Eversman), what makes her special starts to disappear before (you guessed it) she realises that being herself is what matters. So there’s some heart and smithereens of social commentary hidden in the film, but you have to look hard for it, because the finished product is pretty much forgettable, hampered by hammy comedy, tired pop-culture references and the conceit that "more is more" when it very much isn’t. The comedy and style of the film is never consistent, and you find yourself wishing it stopped dancing around the serious stuff at its centre and just deal with it. ‘The DUFF’ feels like a film that has no idea what it is, made quickly to satisfy instant demands but with no longevity whatsoever. It’s a pity, because there’s actually something there.
There’s some heart and smithereens of social commentary hidden in the film, but you have to look hard for it.
Thankfully, the two central performances pretty much save the film in the end. It’s no surprise that Mae Whitman is great as Bianca, though the idea of her being seen as fat or ugly is still a tad hard to believe, no matter what they do. She has so much spunk and charm, and seems to be able to chart the erratic comic styles the film keeps falling into. The real surprise though is Robbie Amell, who totally steals the film as Wesley. He’s drop-dead gorgeous and as looks as cliché as a football captain could, but his charisma and timing are impeccable, and every moment he appears on screen is a gem. He also proves able to chart some of the more dramatic content far better than anyone else outside of Whitman. Most importantly though, the two of them have so much chemistry it isn’t funny. In fact, if there’s any reason to see ‘The DUFF’, it’s to see these two together. Their work together is such an unexpected delight, and hopefully we see more of them both, Whitman grappling more meaty material and Amell being given even more room to grow.
So is ‘The DUFF’ a new teen classic? Not even close. It lacks the lovely abandon of films like ‘Easy A’ or ‘She’s The Man’ or the biting wit of ‘Mean Girls’ or ‘Election’. It’ll probably burn brightly for a moment before disappearing entirely. If you find yourself in a position to watch it, give it a look if only because Mae Whitman and (especially) Robbie Amell are totally worth the effort, but don’t expect to remember it much afterwards, either as a good time or as a take-down of one of the more disgusting teen labels among the already vast collection of awful teen labels.