Much like the popular jock who has a soft spot for the cute nerdy girl, I have secret, hidden feelings about teen comedies. I still love them despite being long-removed from my teenage years. They are formulaic and often ridiculous tales, but damn it, I kind of love them. I suppose this affliction stems from growing up in the era of John Hughes classics. When you grew up in the 1980s with films like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club,” it’s easy to become enamored with the genre. To dream of taking Molly Ringwald to the dance, go to a party at Ferris Bueller’s, and drive her home in a chrome gray Delorean, with a time machine built into the back … I might be remembering the wrong movie.
“The DUFF” is a solid attempt at the teen genre. It’s not perfect by any stretch, but it’s a charming little piece of high-school dramedy, and features some likable characters and extremely familiar plot points. “DUFF” stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend”: the acronym assigned to the unfortunate member of a social circle deemed the least attractive. According to the central narrative, every group of friends has a DUFF. They serve as liaisons to the super-hot, fielding questions from would-be suitors.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a smart but shlumpy teen with two very good looking friends. She is blissfully unaware of her DUFF-ness, until a hunky-but-blunt acquaintance, Wesley (Robbie Amell), points out her designated social role. It’s like a curse. Once she hears it, the news begins to ruin her life. Like any kid with an ounce of self-respect, Bianca hates the idea of being a DUFF. Sure, she’s a little awkward and quirky, but what high-school teen movie protagonist isn’t? Rather than embrace her differences, she enlists Wesley’s aid to shed the DUFF designation to help her get the confidence to win over a guitar-playing, flaxen-haired boy that makes her weak at the knees.
If we’re talking modern teen comedies, the benchmark is the still-excellent “Mean Girls.” “The DUFF” extracts a lot of similar themes from Tina Fey’s well-written look at high-school bitchiness. Instead of Rachel McAdams’ ultimate alpha female, Regina, we have a watered-down version in the form of Bella Thorne’s Madison. Madison amuses. She refers to herself as “pre-famous” and has a lackey follow her around to film every activity for her inevitable reality show. Sadly, this level of entitlement is hardly implausible based on current celebrity-obsessed, always-online culture.
What I liked about “The DUFF” was Mae Whitman’s Bianca. The best high-school movies require a likable main character, and Bianca is easy to root for. She’s smart but a little flighty. Well-intentioned but socially clueless. She’s Cher from “Clueless” without the fashion sense. She’s Laney from “She’s All That” but more prone to emotional outbursts. Bianca’s journey is a well-traveled road. She has to learn how to become comfortable with herself, and thankfully realizes “we’re all DUFFs” because there’s always somebody better looking or more popular with which we have to contend. Right out of the “Revenge of the Nerds” playbook.
It’s unfortunate we don’t see more teen comedies. I’m not sure why exactly the landscape has so drastically changed. “The DUFF” feels like an anomaly in our current cinematic culture. We get so few movies of this type anymore. While I’m always hopeful for these types of movies, “The DUFF” is merely an average entry into the genre, saved by the likability of Mae Whitman and some great supporting players like Allison Janney and Ken Jeong. I like “The DUFF” enough to recommend it, but it’s more likely to make you pine fondly for the teen comedies of yesteryear instead of being blown away by its excellence. “The DUFF” is like the DUFF of teen comedies. It’s not the prettiest or the most popular, but it has value.
Starring Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne and Robbie Amell
Directed by Ari Sandel