The Duff is She’s All That for post-millenials
Formulaic but fun, ‘The Duff’ is a decent way to kill two hours.
There was a run of teen movies in the late 90s and early 2000s that were cheap, simple, and harmless. Films like Whatever It Takes, Mean Girls, and She’s All That. Take these movies, sprinkle a little Easy A in and run them through a blender and you get The Duff, a cute but harmless entry into the teen makeover comedy category.
The Duff is about a smart, quirky girl named Bianca (played by Arrested Development‘s Mae Whitman), who is a bit of a tomboy, she loves cult movies and excels at her studies but is completely lacking in style, fashion, and popularity. While not the most popular girl in school, she does have two best friends who happen to be two of the hottest and most popular girls. Of course no teen comedy would be complete without the mean popular girl and The Duff is no exception: the beautiful and popular Madison (Bella Thorne), the queen bee of the school and all around bitch. Bianca is approached by her neighbor and childhood friend, sorta, kinda (the film briefly mentions they used to play together as small children but never expands on it), named Wesley (Robbie Amell), and he informs Bianca that she is a D.U.F.F or Designated Ugly Fat Friend. From there Bianca decides to change her station in life and Wesley agrees to help her in exchange for math tutoring.
A lot of old ground is retread in The Duff, from the neighbor/ love interest having a bedroom window facing the lead’s (Whatever it Takes), to the nerdy ugly girl getting turned into the hot popular girl (She’s All That), the bitchy high school queen character reeks of Mean Girls, and the parent who curses and is just like a best friend is straight out of Easy A. Yes The Duff is a hodgepodge of the standout parts of many more memorable teen comedies, and while it does a fine job with what it’s emulating, the end result is fine … just fine.
This is probably the biggest problem with the film; it never becomes anything more than just okay. Some gags will make you groan, a few are genuinely funny, but not much is particularly special or memorable about The Duff. The leads have surprisingly good chemistry but the screenwriters were so worried about getting as many clichés in that they could, that the story and character development suffers as a result. There are certain moments where the film shows another side of itself that could have really been something special. A couple of fantasy sequences, including one that parodies old porno tropes, were laugh out loud funny. Ken Jeong is also a highlight as one of Bianca’s teachers but he’s criminally underused. There are just so many directions this movie wants to pull you in that it short-changes all of its subplots as a result.
The film has a strong focus on cyber-bullying and social media’s effect on today’s high school experience. While this angle gives some of the more cliché elements a slightly fresher feel, you can’t help but roll your eyes at other points that are surprisingly unsavvy with technology in a movie that concerns itself with the internet so much. These moments are brief and few in number but they feel oddly out of touch with the twelve to twenty target audience. Moments like YouTube videos being pulled from the internet by teenage hacker girls in a matter of seconds, teenagers carrying multiple cellphones, and kids sharing videos around school while declaring out loud that they’re going to make them “go viral.” No one shares other people’s videos with their friends to make them viral, they just share it and it becomes viral organically. These story beats feel clunky and out-of-place.
The happiest surprise in this film is Robbie Amell. The young actor is surprisingly likable even when filling the traditional high school jock/ jerk role. He has a very Daniel Tosh-like quality both in look and in ability to say terrible things with a wink and a smile that keep him endearing. This almost undermines the films attempts to set his character up as the traditional dumb jerk with more under the surface. The movie starts off trying to convince us how mean he is and how he’s just another stupid jock but they quickly forget this thread entirely and just let him be a pretty stand-up and awesome guy for the majority of the film. Had they let him be a bit more unlikable at the start, there could have been a nice arc to his character development.
It’s also worth noting that from Arrested Development through The Duff, Mae Whitman has now spent eleven years playing a high schooler. Luckily she’s in good company. The Duff keeps the teen movie cliché of having almost no actual teenagers playing teenagers and instead we get a bunch of twenty-somethings playing the bulk of the high school parts.
As it is, The Duff is a funny, though uneven film. If only it had taken the time to decide what it wanted to be, there could have been a real classic here, instead we get another average entry into the teen comedy genre. While it’s worth the time and money to check out, it’s likely you’ll have a hard time remembering it soon after you leave the theatre.