If nothing else, “The DUFF” illustrates the ability of truly capable actors to redeem limp comedic material. In almost every way, the new film from director Ari Sandel (the Oscar-winning short film “West Bank Story”) is forgettable, peppered with teen movie clichés and recycled rom-com plots, but its cast elevates even the direst jokes.

The Duff

Lionsgate and CBS Films
Rave and Quality 16

Written by Josh A. Cagan (the underrated “Bandslam”), “The DUFF” puts forth the idea that each friend group in high school includes a “DUFF”: the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) plays Bianca, who discovers that she is the DUFF of her group, and cuts off all ties with her best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels, “American Horror Story: Freak Show”) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos, “The Fosters”). Seeking to become successful in her own dating life instead of simply being the approachable, less attractive friend, Bianca arranges a deal with childhood friend and football quarterback Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell, “The Flash”). In exchange for Bianca’s help with passing chemistry, Wes will teach her how to land her crush.

If you think you know where this is going, you’re probably right; Bianca begins to wonder if Wes is actually the one for her, and the standard rom-com beats follow. Luckily, Whitman and Amell are fantastic in their roles, each lending a self-awareness to offset their stereotypical roles: the flannel-wearing, Japanese-cult-horror-movie-watching quirky girl and the obnoxious jock man-whore (a phrase the film uses a number of times), respectively. Bianca’s scenes of nervous mumble-flirting could be grating based on Cagan’s script, but Whitman makes the character both self-deprecating and genuinely concerned about her social image. Her facial expressions and physical movements alone are enough to make the character immediately endearing. Every scene between Bianca and Wesley crackles with unexpected chemistry, assisted by Wes’s continual failure to stifle his laughter when Bianca makes dumb jokes.

One begins to wish the movie could just be 100 minutes of Bianca and Wesley hanging out, because most of the film’s conflict feels forced. Jess and Casey never suggest any malevolence in their friendship with Bianca, so the disintegration of the group dynamic feels hollow and pointless. Jess’s sole distinguishing quality is that she’s a future fashion designer, and Casey’s one quality is that she likes hacking. These hobbies, instead of suggesting inner lives for the characters, function as plot conveniences. Same goes for Madison (Bella Thorne, “Shake It Up”), Wes’s on-and-off girlfriend who never achieves complexity like Regina George from “Mean Girls” or other queen-of-the-school characters in teen movies. Madison is a bland antagonist, stirring up trouble and embarrassing Bianca whenever she gets the chance, and she’s so unlikable that it’s impossible to find her “what the shit” catchphrase or desperate desire for fame remotely funny.

Sandel cultivates an amicable energy to the proceedings, though he generally doesn’t do much to give the film its own distinct personality aside from occasional over-the-top fantasy sequences. His scenes with Whitman and Amell, though, seem more genuine and real, relying on fun banter and flying sparks instead of pandering quirks like the name-dropping of social media apps. One might be tempted to read into the inherent misogyny of a man teaching a woman how to dress and be more appealing to men, especially because the other end of the deal — Bianca lending Wes her chemistry notes — hardly equals the extensive training Wes gives Bianca. The early scenes reflect this imbalance; Amell is much taller than the 5’1” Whitman, and as they walk together on the track, Bianca begging Wes to help her, he towers over her in the frame. Luckily, their dynamic changes. The film’s best scene, in which Bianca and Wes sit together on ‘Think Rock’ and have a deep conversation, is framed so that Wes and Bianca are level with each other. This ups the sexual tension due to their proximity, but it also subtly shows how their dynamic has shifted.

The movie culminates in a bland ‘be yourself’ scene at the homecoming dance, like “Mean Girls” but without the punch of catharsis. It’s a shame that “The DUFF” brings nothing new to the table, but it should, at least, send a clear message to comedy writers everywhere: put Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell in more movies.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.