The concept of a DUFF – a.k.a. a Designated Ugly Fat Friend – is, as you’d likely agree, a horrible one. Fortunately, it’s one that the makers of The DUFF also seem to realize, if not completely destroy.
The DUFF opens up with Bianca (Mae Whitman) explaining how the idea of strict cliques in high school is done, as evidenced by her two best friends: sweet, aspiring fashion designer Jess and tough athlete/hacker Casey. Bianca, meanwhile, is the lover of cult films who likes to dress in flannel and overalls. Bianca exists happily until childhood friend/next door neighbor/current nemesis Wesley (Robbie Amell) tells her nonchalantly that she’s Jess and Casey’s DUFF, which is why people constantly ask her about her friends. At first, this infuriates Bianca, but once the idea sticks in her mind, she implodes.
Bianca’s reactions go in several different directions. They include dumping her friends (in a social media unfriending scene that includes just about every social media platform outside of Myspace) and proposing a deal to Wesley to help him pass his classes so he won’t get kicked off the football team, in exchange for un-DUFFing her so she can land a date with the boy of her dreams, Toby, who she refers to as, and I quote, “#Amazeballs.”
That last part is important. One of the more unique elements (and also the element most likely to date this film) is the film’s use of social media, including dialogue and on-screen graphics that make mention of hashtags and Twitter handles. There’s also a video that circulates of Bianca that goes viral, and cyberbullying is mentioned repeatedly by the school’s principal as something he fears.
The DUFF is, in general, not among the stronger films set in high school – it’s not a new generation’s Clueless, Mean Girls or Easy A. But it does have its charms, and they largely come from the leads. Whitman is an immensely likable presence who’s made her mark playing roles that would charitably be called “unconventional” in Hollywood, including in stints on Arrested Development (“Her?”) and Parenthood. She’s neither ugly nor fat by any reasonable standard, but she’s typically painted that way when shown next to someone with a more Hollywood-friendly look (such as Bella Thorne in this film). She’s also rarely in the forefront, but she’s at the front here, and she takes full advantage of that. In her hands, Bianca is simultaneously self-aware and naïve. She commits to every scene, including an ill-advised faux-romancing of a mall-store mannequin. In a word, she’s fearless.
It helps that the bulk of her screen time has her paired up with Amell, who is as likable as Whitman and has a natural chemistry with her. The film goes to pains to make Wesley more than the stereotypical dumb jock, whether through mentions of him watching Project Runway unapologetically or with a troubled home life that helps him bond with Bianca. The film also benefits from Allison Janney’s presence as Bianca’s mom, a motivational speaker who sometimes finds herself unable to stop talking in platitudes.
The DUFF does get a little schmaltzy at the end, and the ending is also rather conventional. Still, I give credit to the writer and director for at least making the formula work. With that, and the work of Whitman and Amell, The DUFF may not escape being among the genre’s best, but it’s also not…well, the DUFF of the genre.