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February 20, 2015

Somehow, high school comedies just don’t seem as good as they used to be. Is it some form of nostalgia on my part, as I age away from the point where they’re actually aimed at me? I hardly claim that John Hughes’ brat pack movies were without flaw, but they were certainly better than The DUFF.

It’s not just the changing times; just five years ago we got Easy A. It took a hard look at some of the ways teenagers, in their somewhat amateurish ways, are awful to each other, took them apart, and turned them around. The DUFF is after something like the same goal, but in a cheap, pandering, tone deaf way.

For one thing, it invents a whole new form of social ostracism. “DUFF” stands for the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend”, an acronym almost as contrived as S.H.I.E.L.D. It means the somewhat less attractive — and thus more approachable — member of a group of friends, who others use as a sort of social on-ramp. Do people sometimes try to get to know their crushes through friends? I’m sure. But elevating the concept like this seems to come more from the pick-up artist’s warped sense of sociology, along with “alphas” and “betas”, than actual human observation.

But within the story itself, Bianca (Mae Whitman) is informed that she’s the DUFF of her friends (Bianca Santos and Skyler Samuels), with whom she prominently breaks off relations. She enlists her childhood next-door friend Wesley (Robbie Arnell) — now the football player in an on-again, off-again relationship with Bianca’s chief mean-girl tormentor Madison (Bella Thorne) — to do the whole Henry Higgins thing and make her over into a popular girl herself.

Of course, Bianca’s just fine. Whitman may not be as thin as the ever-willowy Thorne, but she’s still gorgeous by regular-people standards. Bianca’s got her own geeky interests — heavy on the B horror movies — and seems fairly smart and confident in herself to boot. She knows full well going in that she’s not the one of her friends the boys swoon over, and she seems fine with that up until the moment Wesley gives her position a name. Even less believable than the term itself is that this young woman would care about it.

After the setup it’s a long yawn, alternately pandering and heavy-handed. We know that eventually she’s going to get back with her friends, and she’ll regain her confidence in Being Her Own Person. And while I applaud that result — along with how they integrate her old flannel-wearing style into the obligatory Cinderella prom dress — it’s simply mean-spirited for the movie to have taken it away from her in the first place.

The real irony here is Whitman’s casting. She’s one of the best young character actresses on big or small screens, but she’s always relegated to secondary, supporting status. I’m sure she wanted her own lead; she absolutely has the chops on display here, and she deserves better and more prominent roles. Besides, the ugly truth is that there are fewer and fewer roles for female character work as an actress ages. Most of the great character players we remember are male; actresses like Allison Janney (appearing as Bianca’s mother) are rare exceptions.

But that makes her, in the movie’s parlance, the DUFF of young Hollywood. She’s not the star most people focus on, and she supports the ones they do. The entire hoary old point of the story, though, is that it’s a mistake to debase yourself into becoming what you think other people want you to be, which is exactly what she does by taking on this part.

Mae Whitman is a great actress, and if there’s any justice she’ll have a long career including some impressive leads. But The DUFF is not a step along that path. Like Bianca and so many teen comedy leading ladies before her, she’ll have to chalk this one up to youthful missteps before moving on to a place that’s right for her.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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