‘The Duff’ is a mildly entertaining comedy with confused identity politics

theduffThe DUFF
Written by Josh A. Cagan (based on a novel by Kody Keplinger)
Directed by Ari Sandel
USA, 2015

The DUFF takes the geek-gets-a-makeover high school formula and tweaks it mostly muddled results. A few naturalistic romance scenes and the efforts of its very able leads, buoy this into watchable territory. However overall this is a film plagued by confusion and several nonsensical plot twists.

Bianca (Parenthood’s Mae Whitman) lacks style and popularity, but living in the orbit of her two popular best friends, fashionista Jess (Skyler Samuels) and athlete Casey (Bianca Santos), she barely notices. The film opens with a Breakfast-Club-esque voiceover from Bianca about how high school used to be broken down into the jock, the nerd, the criminal, the princess, and the basket case, but now that it’s the 21st century, geeks rule the world, jocks play video games, and most of the old social stratifications no longer exist. “Or so I used to think,” she concludes somberly…and so we embark on the traditional tale of high school persecution followed by transformation.

Or do we? The DUFF seems to to no clear ideas about what identity is, nor what actually constitutes a geek or an outsider. Near the film’s final act, Bianca is proudly proclaimed a “total weirdo,” and viewers are meant to believe from the onset that she is an oddball and a victim of social judgement and ostracization. Yet aside from a fondness for horror films and a laid-back clothing style, Bianca is fairly, well, normal (average, even – sorry Hollywood, a love for horror does not a reject make). She dresses largely in overalls and plaid shirts, but it’s hard to critique this as a total lack of style given that it falls squarely under the umbrella of “grunge” (a very large fashion movement, and something both Bianca and the filmmakers seem oblivious to). Jess and Casey are genuine friends to her – kind, inclusive, and when she does face occasional ostracization, quickly stand up for her. When the school’s reigning bitch-queen Madison (Bella Thorne) gives them a party invitation but blatantly ignores Bianca, the two make sure that she gets an invite anyway and has fun.

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Which makes the film’s central conceit – that Bianca is a “DUFF” – the designated ugly fat friend in the trio – more than little unconvincing. When guy-next-door and football jock Wesley (Robbie Amell) casually informs Bianca at a party that she’s Jess and Casey’s DUFF, the approachable but unattractive member of the trio who can be chatted up for information about her hotter friends, she angrily and thoroughly ends her friendship with both girls. The film gives short shrift to female friendship – the camera never lingers on Jess or Casey for more than a second, and they have no real impact on Bianca’s life. That role goes almost entirely to Wesley, whom she’s known for years and whom she enlists as her tutor in social graces.

Robbie Amell and Mae Whitman are both more than game for their roles, and Robbie brings a grounded charisma to Wes, a serial flirt who can’t quite decide whether to be a douche or a nice guy. Their one-on-one scenes have a naturalistic zing and unselfconscious banter that’s hard to capture, and had the script spent more time with just the two of them, could have lifted the film into a genuinely good rom-com.

Unfortunately, much of the story is taken up by Bianca’s interactions with others, and her awkwardness is dialed up to extreme, hard-to-swallow levels, especially from someone so intelligent. Ken Jeong is a scene-stealer as a kind teacher who encourages her in the face of a viral video campaign. The movie hints at deeper themes in her relationship with her mother (Allison Janney), but pulls back from exploring it. And just prior to the film’s finale, several characters take actions that make no logical sense in order to propel Bianca into her moment of triumphant self-expression.

All of which leads to the prom and a romantic climax that is genuinely stirring (a smattering of applause broke out in the theater). Amell and Whitman are both so likable in their roles that you want to overlook the film’s mixed messages and just enjoy their onscreen chemistry. It’s unclear who Bianca was before, and who she is now, and if anything has changed (in a film that tracks self-identity through attire, the last shot of Bianca shows her wearing a thoroughly inoffensive black floral dress that offers no insight into her style choices or internal life), but the girl got the boy, and isn’t that the point? Until we get the next Easy A, this is what we’ll have to settle for.

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