All teen comedies owe some debt to John Hughes and Amy Heckerling.
The milieu of suburban teenage life that they explored decades ago has defined the genre since. The social divisions, the boredom, the dances, the irrepressible awkwardness and the irrational dreaminess of high school students never before seemed so accessible, and so neatly packaged with a perfect soundtrack — even if their scope was rather limited to a particular set of middle class students.
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It’s no surprise that we continue to tell slightly different variations of the same story. There are still outcasts and bullies and war stories to be told from the halls of suburban high schools, and every generation deserves its own silly teenage misfit story. While it’s neither as biting as Mean Girls nor as sweetly referential as Easy A, the earnest and sometimes amusing The DUFF is a fine addition to the canon.
In the film, Mae Whitman stars as Bianca, an overall-wearing overachiever who’s just trying to navigate her senior year alongside her two best friends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos).
But their dynamic is not equal, the handsome, popular and sweetly dim-witted football player Wesley (Robbie Amell) bluntly informs Bianca at a party. Bianca, he explains, is the Designated Ugly Fat Friend (aka “The DUFF”) of the group. She’s the one who goes unnoticed till someone wants to gain access to her comparably more beautiful friends.
This revelation causes Bianca to take off on her own, unfriending her longtime pals (in the only way that contemporary kids might know how — on every last social media site) and convincing Wesley to help her break out of DUFF prison.
On its face, with the popular guy teaching the misfit girl how to fit in, it’s like Can’t Buy Me Love in reverse.
But then director Ari Sandel takes a modern turn. In Mean Girls, chaos ensues when the queen bee makes hard copies of the secret-filled and reputation destroying “burn book.” Here, Wesley’s vindictive on-again, off-again girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne, taking her Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day brat to the next level) just has to press send on an embarrassing video.
The act of digital aggression spreads rapidly throughout a school hungry for someone else to laugh at, and Bianca becomes even more of a social pariah.
In some ways, The DUFF is an up-to-the-minute and empowering version of the stories we know all too well. Bianca doesn’t want or need to be popular in the classic sense. She just wants to be treated as her own person. And while Wesley might help her find more flattering clothes and bras, his main goal isn’t to assimilate, it’s to make Bianca more comfortable in her own skin.
While The DUFF whiffs on the comedy front more often than it succeeds and is likely not destined to become the Sixteen Candles for a new generation, it is eminently watchable and even a bit touching. It takes a special kind of movie to nail a revelatory dance scene. On that front, The DUFF and its leads pass with flying colors.
Cast: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell.
Director: Ari Sandel.
Screenwriter: Josh A. Cagan. Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger.
A CBS Films release. Running time: 104 minutes. Crude and sexual material, some language and teen partying. Playing at area theaters.