Making a film about teenagers in the last 20 years has gotten markedly more difficult for any number of reasons. The biggest is that it’s a genre that’s become more and more populated with twenty somethings cast with teen angst delivering dialogue designed by writers who are far enough removed from that experience that the familiar tropes and cliches of teenage angst are much easier to deliver than genuine characters. It’s why the excellence of John Hughes has lingered over the genre for so many years; Hughes raised the bar high enough that it’s fairly rare for a film to tap into that genre with any success. The only film that genuinely reached into that category of being a rival to a Hughes film was Superbad in 2007, nearly a decade ago. The DUFF, arriving with significantly less fanfare and a cast of veritable unknowns to the cinematic public at large, is a film that may not rival anything Hughes has done … but certainly makes a case for at least being close to the conversation.
Simple premise. Bianca (Mae Whitman) is the lesser looking of a trio of friends and is virtually ignored by the world around her when hanging out with the two. She’s the lone child of a single mother (Allison Janney), who took the pain of a divorce and turned it into a wildly successful career as a motivational speaker/author. At a party Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), her childhood best friend turned star football player, imparts on her the knowledge that’ll change the course of her remaining high school existence. She’s a DUFF, designated ugly fat friend, to much more attractive friends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). She’s the one whose like and trust one gains to get an edge. Shocking her out of her comfort zone, Bianca decides to try and come out of her shell to win the boy of her dreams (Nick Eversman). It doesn’t wind up going as planned, of course, and for Bianca the pursuit of a crush winds up changing her (and her perspective) in many ways.
It’s refreshing to see a film cast young people in a film about youth, as most of the main cast is under 25. This is Whitman’s film and she seizes it, bringing out a similar performance to John Cusack in Better Off Dead. It’s a similar film to the Cusack cult ’80s film, arguably a lesser film to the great wave of teen films in the ’80s itself, and Whitman brings out an oddly touching performance. Bianca is the sort of geeky girl that’s trendy in film but isn’t the spectacularly attractive “geek girl” type commonly cast. Whitman looks like she could be that girl in the same way Ellen Page once embodied that sort of archetype. She’s not nearly as consistently funny as Page was in Juno and Whip it but she’s funny enough for the film to be enjoyable. This isn’t a brilliant film; it’s good bordering on great and is limited from a script that tries to be too clever for its own good.
It does have some absolutely brilliant moments, including Janney making a This is Spinal Tap reference that is played brilliantly by Whitman, Santos and Samuels. They’re a generation that didn’t grow up with that film as a classic comedy, of course, and that they think it’s a more contemporary reference is a joke that those over 30 will really appreciate.
The film follows the usual genre cliches, including the big swerve towards the end that any number of films have borrowed, but it’s not a bad thing. The film is entertaining enough that we can forgive them because the path to the obvious conclusion is entertaining enough for us to forgive it.
Lionsgate presents The DUFF. Directed by Ari Sandel. Written by Josh A. Cagan, based on the novel by Kody Keplinger. Starring Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Skyler Samuels, Bianca A. Santos, Nick Eversman, Allison Janney, Ken Jeong. Run Time: 101 minutes Rated PG-13. Released on DVD: 6.9.2015