REVIEW: The DUFF [2015]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: February 20th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: CBS Films / Lionsgate
Director(s): Ari Sandel
Writer(s): Josh A. Cagan / Kody Keplinger (novel)

“Can I have some peaches and pears?”

CBS Films and Lionsgate are using an interesting approach to pitch The DUFF. Watching their first trailer made me check the calendar, wondering if I had somehow been transported back in time. Not only were they openly calling someone a Designated Ugly Fat Friend to her face as though it’s merely a fact worth noting, they were doing so to someone who isn’t close to being either pejorative. This atrocity set itself up to go the tired ugly duckling route, telling girls they need to be thin and pretty as well as calling a thinner than “average” actress fat to share a heinous complex with a new generation of Americans. Thankfully the trailer isn’t representative of the film itself. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite go far enough to dispel its notion either.

The buzz on the streets is that director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan had found this year’s Mean Girls in Kody Keplinger‘s source novel. In accordance with that I constructed a mindset for the film being the antithesis of its trailer—a comedy treating its stereotype with irony or one going for the jugular by completely reversing roles. The DUFF is neither, or at least not in the way I imagined. There is a bit of role reversal but it’s of the gender trope variety as opposed to the class hierarchy sort. In the end the finished product is merely okay: kind of boring, very redundant, yet also endearingly worthwhile. After all, anything willing to healthily tell our youth it’s okay to be him/herself has to be worthwhile.

Its best attribute is how quickly its lead Bianca (Mae Whitman) realizes this truth. Not only is she comfortable in her own skin cracking wise and ignoring how everyone ignores her when she’s with BFFs Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), but the first thing she does when initially called a “DUFF” is go weirder than ever before. There’s something to the mentality of owning labels whether you’ve placed them upon yourself or not and her ensuring the school look at her how she wants to be seen is admirable. It wouldn’t be a movie if this were the complete plot, though—it could have if she orchestrated a DUFF uprising against the pretty elite like my girlfriend hoped. Bianca ultimately wants to fit in too and Wesley (Robbie Amell) might be able to help.

Her neighbor and oldest “friend”—they took baths together as babies—the two drifted apart shortly after he became a “man-whore” football captain and she a studious over-achiever. Bringing them back into orbit is his suspension from the team for failing Chemistry and her inability to speak more than three words at her crush Toby (Nick Eversman). What follows is an ugly duckling outing at the mall, one bringing Bianca and Wesley closer as well as turning her into a “woman worthy of Toby’s attention”. This version of her doesn’t last too long and is actually originally deemed a shallow Band-Aid by Wesley in a welcome change of cliché. Bianca and the audience soon discover how being confident in one’s own skin is paramount and the rest falls into place.

The machinations are rote besides the nice reversal where the girl gets to be herself as the boy evolves from douchebag to empathetic. While this does give us the central moral and take down clique borders, however, it’s less than stimulating cinema. No, what keeps us invested in the film becomes a nicely cobbled together crew of supporting players adding a wide variety of humor and drama. You get teachers like Ken Jeong‘s Mr. Arthur, a grown-up nerd who has taken awkward to another level in his goal to be the “cool adult”. There’s Chris Wylde‘s very entertaining Mr. Filmore who openly revels in a new school rule banning electronic devices from the classroom and Romany Malco‘s paranoid Principal Buchanon who blatantly ignores how out-of-touch he is with the present culture.

This trio arrives whenever a break into the romantic escapades is necessary just like Bianca’s friends Casey and Jess. Their duo of hot yet down-to-earth girls is one of the scripts weakest parts, though, since you really sympathize with them when Bianca ends their friendship in the overblown assumption they’ve been using her. They’re the most genuine characters in the entire film and it’s them who become pawns to force the star to gravitate towards Wesley as a confidant instead. For his part, Amell proves fun and likeable as well as realistic in his internal wrestling with a projected image and how he feels. He adds a layer of depth necessary to counter the ultimate one-dimensional “mean girl” Madison. Played by Bella Thorne, her caricature is expertly broad and hilariously obnoxious.

That leaves the twenty-six year old Whitman’s teen carrying the chaos surrounding her for the duration. Her budding chemistry with Amell is authentic—probably because he too is twenty-six as opposed to Thorne’s seventeen—and her acting is at its best when revealing the inadequacies of self-help success Mom, Allison Janney. The scenes Whitman and Janney share are honest and a great indicator of how good the former is. I’m happy she’s finally been given a film to call her own, but The DUFF is below her talents. It was surely fun to make (especially that mall scene with hammy gyrations), but it isn’t the crossover success many would hope to believe. Whereas Mean Girls still speaks to all ages on some level today, this one very obviously targets those millennials quick to declare it great.


photography:
[1] Bianca A. Santos, Mae Whitman and Skyler Samuels in CBS Films’ The DUFF (2015)
[2] Robbie Amell stars as Wesley in CBS Films’ The DUFF (2015)
[3] Mae Whitman stars as Bianca and Bella Thorne stars as Madison in CBS Films’ The DUFF (2015)

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