The DUFF is a cute, formulaic teen comedy interested in playing within the bounds of the stereotypical high school caste system. It buys into the clichéd social structure of athletes, nerds, and other Breakfast Club groupings for maximum cliquish silliness and angst, before breaking it down in a happily every after scene at the Big Dance. It’s a movie about being comfortable in your own skin and owning what makes you unique. I suppose it makes a certain sort of sense that the movie follows suit, being comfortable settling into a bright, colorful, light mood, content to do nothing but the predictable and expected. Plot turns are not merely telegraphed, they’re practically scrawled on the poster in the lobby. They practically give away the ending free with the purchase of your ticket.
So it doesn’t benefit from the screenplay cleverness that factors into the genre’s best. There’s nothing like a Tina Fey (Mean Girls), or Amy Heckerling (Clueless), or Cameron Crowe (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) sociological wit to the writing here. But the script by Josh A. Cagan, from a book by Kody Keplinger, does feature a bouncy energy that carries across its thin derivative ideas about how teenagers relate to one another. It starts with a girl (Mae Whitman) who is told by her jerk hunk neighbor (Robbie Amell) that she’s her group of friends’ DUFF – their Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Ouch. Mad, she ignores her friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and improbably asks this rude boy to coach her into coolness, hoping to win the affections of her crush object (Nick Eversman) in the process.
It’s a conventional makeover teen comedy, in which a perceived ugly duckling makes minor changes and suddenly she’s stunning. In this case, Whitman, no DUFF to begin with, starts with baggy pants and a limp haircut. She also leans into the role, slouching and pulling inwards, shyly avoiding the gaze of her crush. The jerk next door ignores his on-again-off-again mean girl girlfriend (Bella Thorne) and spends a lot of time with Whitman, helping pick out new outfits and telling her she’s not so bad looking after all. You can see where this is going. Director Ari Sandel, of the Oscar-winning short West Bank Story, brings some instantly-dated modern touches – cutesy webspeak references, a light cyberbullying subplot – that add a bit of freshness around the edges. But the core is conventional, filled with thin stereotypes in an overfamiliar story.
What makes this mildly bemusing movie an agreeably painless distraction is Whitman. A comedy veteran of everything from Arrested Development to Tinker Bell, she takes what could be a garnish’s worth of material and turns it into a three-course meal of sympathetic awkwardness, sly sarcasm, funny voices, blushing crushing, terrific reaction shots, and believable teen angst. While hardly ugly or fat – I wanted to tell the film to stop trying to make “DUFF” happen – Whitman does look out of place in high school, though less so this one populated with twentysomethings. She’s a decade older than her character, and uses that to her advantage. It’s easy to look at this cool young woman and see how her best features – an easy goofiness, dark sense of humor, and love for cult horror films – could go unappreciated in the moment, but help her make her way in the future.
It’s not about the ugly becoming beautiful, but a girl finding her way back to a sense of self-confidence. That’s sweet and empowering, saving the film from being a total waste of time. Familiar but well intentioned is a reasonable accomplishment, I suppose. It won’t hurt anyone. It helps that Whitman’s so watchable, and is surrounded by a capable cast, including charming Allison Janney, Romany Malco, and Ken Jeong livening up underwritten adult roles. There’s not much here, but what is can be pleasant enough.