Everyone knows Duff is Homer Simpson’s favorite brand of beer. What “The DUFF” presupposes is: what if it were also a mean acronym used by teens in a formulaic high school comedy? DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and it’s the person in a group who makes the others look better by comparison. You don’t even have to be particularly ugly or fat to be a DUFF, just less beautiful or thin than your peers. It’s an unfair system, but that’s high school for you.
“The DUFF” is based on a novel that was written when its author, Kody Keplinger, was 17, the wounds of high school still fresh on her psyche. The movie, though adapted and produced by adults, maintains a 17-year-old’s facile view of life, offering nothing but the most familiar insights and the easiest jokes in its well-worn story about a plain Jane who comes out of her shell. (The grown-ups have managed to make all the references to modern social media sound fake and corny, though.) Anyone not currently in high school is bound to find it derivative, albeit not unpleasant.
Our DUFF is Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman), a high school senior of average appearance and sullen demeanor. She feels invisible next to her super-hot best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). She gets tongue-tied when she tries to talk to her crush, guitar-playing beanpole Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman). Thus burdened with the usual neuroses of adolescence, Bianca becomes a total basket-case when someone actually puts a label on it. She’s a DUFF, says Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), the hottest guy in school and also Bianca’s next-door neighbor and former childhood playmate. But if she’ll tutor Wesley in science, he’ll help her un-DUFF herself so she can get the guy she wants.
The de-DUFFification process, of course, means buying new clothes, practicing how to flirt, and so forth. Do you think there is a chance that in spending so much time together, Bianca and Wesley will accidentally fall for EACH OTHER? Do you also think that Wesley’s snotty, on-again/off-again girlfriend, Madison (Bella Thorne, the only actual teenager in the main cast), will misinterpret Bianca and Wesley’s friendship and be jealous? Not to give anything away, but it sounds like maybe you’ve seen a movie or two before.
That’s the only real problem here: this is all so familiar. Mae Whitman’s central performance is sharp — get her a real starring role, stat — and first-time feature director Ari Sandel indulges a few quirks (like brief fantasy sequences) to liven things up. But there isn’t enough of that, and certainly not enough real laughs in Josh A. Cagan’s screenplay. For the most part, what we get is a retread of the “just be yourself” teen comedies that Hollywood has been making ever since teenagers were first discovered, in the 1950s. It’s like the old saying goes: every generation gets the “She’s All That” it deserves. This one is yours, kids.
C (1 hr., 41 min.; )
Originally published at GeekNation.