“You either know one, you have one or you are one” trumpets the marketing campaign for The DUFF, which stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend”. Aside from questions of whether or not this is just handing ammunition to bullies, this flatulent and hashtag-friendly message is quite unrepresentative of what turns out to be a fairly sweet teen comedy.
Bianca Piper, (played by the always excellent Mae Whitman) is a whip-smart 17-year-old who spends her spare time writing for the school paper and watching old horror movies. She’s mortified when her neighbour and childhood friend Wesley (Robbie Amell) blithely calls her a DUFF – basically an approachable access point for guys who want to have sex with her super-hot friends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos.)
The spiral of insecurity that follows could have led to a much darker movie, but as per the perennial makeover tropes of teen comedies, Bianca recruits Wesley to help her “reverse DUFF” and bag the object of her desire, Toby (Nick Eversman) but runs into an adversary in the form of Wesley’s on-off “pre-famous” girlfriend, Madison (Bella Thorne.)
Although it sounds like it’s a film based on an Urban Dictionary entry, this actually comes from a 2010 novel written by then-teenage author Kody Keplinger, which was praised at the time for taking a frank and mature approach to sex in a landscape of young adult literature that was littered with pro-abstinence Twilight descendants. The film, adapted by screenwriter Josh A. Cagan and produced by McG(!) is altogether more frothy.
Cut for a 12A certificate in the UK, the sexual interactions don’t go too far beyond banter for much of the film, building up to a more conventional ending, (at the prom no less) as opposed to the rampant hook-up sex that ensues in the book. This is hardly the most unpredictable teen movie ever made, but it does deliver its tried and tested formula with some measure of wit and endearment.
Much of the film is carried on the shoulders of the likeable cast. Like her comically plain character in Arrested Development, Whitman plants firmly in the centre and stands strong amidst a barrage of unwarranted indifference from most of the young cast. In the tradition of high school movies, she’s a bit too old to be a 17-year-old student, but she flourishes here and blends in better than her fellow oldies – pec-popping, secretly deep Amell and vacantly dreamy Eversman.
Elsewhere, Thorne channels Rachel McAdams’ Regina George from Mean Girls, a teen movie that has still yet to be equalled or surpassed in many ways, but makes for a solid antagonist. There’s also nice support from Alison Janney as Bianca’s bitterly divorced mother, and Ken Jeong, who’s closer to his character in the first season of Community here than he has been in any subsequent season of Community.
On the down side, this is one of those up-to-the-moment comedies that leans way too heavily on social media. Sherlock style info bubbles pop and burst around the heads of students to represent various texts, tweets and YouTube posts and at points, it all feels reminiscent of the high school scenes in Jason Reitman’s woeful Men, Women & Children.
Plus, the embarrassing viral video sub-plot is a relatively recent trope on the whole, but has become so overused and played out in comedy movies and TV shows that it really needs to go away for a while. At the very least, there ought to be seminars for comedy writers to explain how viral videos actually work. The new embarrassment suddenly feels so old hat.
This also relates to the other weak spot in the film, whereby Bianca decides to take out her indignation on Jess and Casey. While the scene in which the three of them histrionically swear that they’ll delete each other on Tumblr, Instagram and various other online sites rings true in a comedic sense, the motivation behind it doesn’t, especially when these are supposedly Bianca’s best mates and they’re completely baffled as to what this DUFF business is all about.
The film’s general message of self-acceptance is one we’ve heard a million times before and might well make you roll your eyes when it’s monologued near the end, but on the basis of “You either know one, you have one or you are one” as a tagline, maybe it does need to be reiterated to the young audience that this is targeting.
To quote Arrested Development, The DUFF is as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face, but perhaps the biggest surprise is how it transcends its lousy marketing campaign. As a post-modern teen movie that doffs its hat to John Hughes, it’s not quite up to the standard of a film like Easy A, but it’s comfortably an easy B minus.
The DUFF is out now on DVD.
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