High school comedies, as a rule, are crammed to the gills with stereotypes, cliches, and characterizations so thin you can see through them. There’s always at least one jock, princess, nerd, weirdo, and bully. Just ask John Hughes, whose The Breakfast Club (has it really been 30 years??) is referenced early and often in The DUFF (or ‘Designated Ugly Fat Friend’). The latest in the long (and generally undistinguished) line of entries into the teen movie genre, The DUFF successfully sets itself apart, joining only a handful of actually good high school comedies to hit screens since Amanda Jones returned those diamond earrings to Keith in Some Kind of Wonderful. (Actually, there are less than a handful. I can only think of She’s All That, Mean Girls, Clueless, and Easy A… but I’ll gladly stand corrected.)
Mae Whitman is Bianca Piper, the DUFF in question, but before you humph in polite protest, it’s explained early on that someone don’t need to be ugly or fat (Whitman is frankly neither) to be a DUFF– it’s all relative. And sure, when standing next to Malloy High School’s reigning Queen Bee, Madison Carter (Bella Thorne), Bianca is decidedly frumpy. It’s only when her friendly neighbor, the resident jock Wes (Robbie Amell), introduces her to the term that she starts to care– instantly suspicious that her two, pretty best friends see her as their DUFF. So in exchange for helping Wes with his homework, he agrees to un-DUFF her. Cue the cut-shot montage set to a hip pop tune.
Whitman anchors The DUFF with enough dry wit and real talent to finally (hopefully) become the star she deserves to be. It’s a surprisingly nuanced performance, and it’s exactly what the doctor ordered, keeping the movie from veering into “silly” territory. The supporting cast brings plenty to the table, too, including Allison Janney as Bianca’s mom and Ken Jeong who (thank heavens) toned down his usual schtick enough to actually be enjoyable here.
First-time feature director Ari Sandel channels his inner Hughes, keeping things light and frothy and zipping right along, but he also takes time to give his characters some genuine emotional depth, too. Josh Cagan’s (Bandslam) screenplay, based on the 2010 novel by Kody Keplinger, is full of smart humor, and even though The DUFF (like She’s All That before it) doesn’t really listen to its own message about beauty, it’s an excusable offense– we’re not here to be preached at. We’re here for a laugh-out-loud look at high school politics and teen social standing, and that’s just what we get– a Definitely and Unreservedly Funny Film.