REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For Digital First Media
What’s the harshest four-letter word in the English language? If you accept the premise of “The Duff,” the title of this teen comedy would be the answer. The term represents an acronym for “designated ugly fat friend.”
One night at a party, high school senior, Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman), receives the sobering news. She is a duff. What makes it even worse is that apparently everyone knows that Bianca has this dubious distinction except her. It takes her lifelong next door neighbor and classmate, Wesley (Robbie Amell), to clue Bianca in to her dread designation.
Wesley hails from decidedly different social strata than Bianca. He’s a glib, popular jock with an impressive six pack. His girlfriend is Madison (Bella Thorne), a strikingly attractive, blonde bitch. She is obsessed with perpetuating her status at the apex of the social hierarchy at all costs.
By contrast, Bianca is a serious student and a member of the student newspaper. Although Bianca is an unrepentant nerd, she possesses an endearingly sardonic wit and a tart tongue.
Bianca’s two best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos), are far prettier and more popular than she is. They’re basically on the same tier as Madison, only with appealing personalities. Jess and Casey are statuesque, carefully groomed, and routinely titivated in fashionable clothing. By contrast, Bianca doesn’t use make-up and wears frumpy clothes. Even when attending a big party at Madison’s house, she is dressed down in a grungy flannel shirt.
According to the film, Jess and Casey have Bianca as their duff. Bianca supposedly serves the function of making them look even better by comparison. That the threesome would be close friends is one of the film’s many blatant lapses in verisimilitude.
After Wesley apprIses Bianca of her status as a duff, she is appalled. She abruptly terminates her relationship with long-time bffs, Jess and Casey. Bianca even goes so far as to-shudder- defriend them on Facebook.
After experiencing her epiphany, Bianca becomes a woman on a mission. She decides to become a make-over project. Her immediate objective is to entice the interest of one of her classmates, a hipstermusician named Toby (Nick Eversman).
To make her “Pygmalion”-like transition, Bianca realizes that she will need a Professor Higgins. She decides to recruit Wesley as her mentor. Wesley is reluctant to get involved. However, Bianca persuades Wesley by offering him desperately needed tutoring in chemistry as a quid pro quo. Will the project prove successful in ensnaring Toby as a boyfriend or will Bianca end up with an unexpected paramour?
“The Duff” is adapted from a best-selling novel by Kody Keplinger. She was a high school student herself, when writing the book. It offers an interesting, first-hand perspective on the social vicissitudes of being a contemporary high school matruculant. As adapted by Josh A. Cagan, the screenplay retains much of the source novel’s spunky charm. First-time director, Ari Sandel, does an effective job of building the narrative trajectory and maintaining its brisk pacing.
“The Duff” is far edgier than most films of this genre. However, it is not nearly as dark as such prior cinematic fare as “Heathers” or “Mean Girls.” Even the nominal villain, Madison, is more narcissistic than malevolent. Devotees of the John Hughes’ oeuvre will recognize allusions to “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.”
Mae Whitman is best known as a supporting player in such vehicles as “Arrested Development,” “Parenthood,” and “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World.” Here, she makes a smooth transition to leading lady status. She delivers her voice-over narration and numerous zingers with panache. Her co-star, Robbie Amell, also does a nice job. He conveys his character, a poised, handsome high school athlete, who is not the bad guy that you might initially assume. Together, the co-protagonists capture the relaxed dynamic of two close friends of many years duration.
“The Duff” is subverted by certain lapses in plausibility and at times devolves into being formulaic. Despite these flaws, it is nevertheless a pleasant and intermittently amusing teen romp.
*** PG-13 (for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying) 104 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at email@example.com.