Mae Whitman Is All That in The DUFF

Lionsgate

Lionsgate

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a normal teenager with best friends, a high school crush and a wardrobe filled with overalls and flannels, but her world is shaken when Wesley (Robbie Amell), the captain of the football team, reveals a dirty, little social secret. He says Bianca is the DUFF – the designated ugly, fat friend – of her particular circle who’s kept around simply to make her two incredibly hot friends, Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), seem even more beautiful and special.

Her friends deny it, but after a quick online visit to Urban Dictionary confirms this is a real acronym Bianca unfriends the pair in person and across social media. She makes a deal with Wesley after his grades get him suspended from the football team – she’ll help him pass his tests, and he’ll do his best to “un-DUFF” her so she can land a boyfriend. I wonder what happens next!

A couple things. Whitman is neither ugly nor fat, and The DUFF is an incredibly obvious and predictable film. One more thing? It’s funny and sweetly entertaining in spite of those shortcomings.

The secret weapon here is Whitman. I know what you’re thinking. That girl? She’s proven herself a capable supporting player in recent years (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Arrested Development, Scott Pilgrim vs the World) but proves here that she’s worthy of leading roles. There’s a real energy to her comedic timing and delivery, and she’s just as comfortable earning laughs through physical antics. Amell doesn’t have the same kind of track record, but he shows a great comedic talent behind his leading man looks.

While the narrative here is little more than an updated She’s All That and the outcome is clear from very early on, Whitman and Amell are an immensely appealing team. They play childhood friends turned high school acquaintances, and their banter shows a degree of chemistry too often absent from romantic comedies. Their repartee is playful and sharp, and while Josh Cagan’s script deserves credit for the words the two performers bring real heart and humorous rapport. They’re highly entertaining, but that chemistry also plays a big role in making the story turns to come more convincing than they’d otherwise be.

Another strength here, albeit a minor one, is in the characters of Casey and Jess. In any other movie these two “hot” teens would fit a very clearly defined archetype – pretty, bitchy, empty mean girls – but here they’re allowed to be actual, honest friends instead. It’s a refreshing change of pace that serves Bianca and the film well.

There are other issues outside of the story’s immediately clear outcome, and they’re mostly centered on the supporting characters – Casey and Jess excluded, obviously.

Madison (Bella Thorne) is Wesley’s ex-girlfriend and queen of the school, and she’s also training to be a reality TV star. Thorne plays the role well over-the-top, near cartoon levels, and at no point does she feel like a real high school student. This is especially odd as she’s one of the only actors here who’s actually a teenager. Madison has a sidekick recording her every move on a cell phone, but the girl also pops up more than once to catch Bianca and Wesley in embarrassing situations. It’s cliched and convenient the first time, but when it happens again – in the middle of the woods – it’s just stupid.

The adults fare a bit better including Allison Janney as Bianca’s self-help guru mom, Ken Jeong as a helpful teacher and Romany Malco as the principal. The trio is mostly present for laughs, and they succeed well enough.

The DUFF’s end credits list cast and crew alike alongside their Twitter handles, and it’s one of many attempts by the film to speak to today’s social media obsessed youth. But while it aims for an up-to-date, contemporary feel and audience a big part of the story it’s telling is at least as old as My Fair Lady. There are no surprises here, but the predictability doesn’t mute the fun.

The Upside: Mae Whitman is a fantastic comedian; Whitman and Robbie Amell have great, believable chemistry; some laughs; Casey and Jess are simple but rare female characters

The Downside: Ridiculously obvious story; supporting characters are weak and frequently false

On the Side: Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell are both 26 years old.

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