Mae Whitman movie reviews

The DUFF Review: Mediocre Modernity with a Healthy Amount of Chemistry

Friday, February 27, 2015 Rob Samuelson

The DUFF



Director: Ari Sandel
Writer: Josh A. Cagan
Starring: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels
Rating: Three Stars out of Five

Timelessness is sometimes a tricky concept for movies to get across. You never want to come off as something not of your era, but you don't want to look hokey in 30 years' time, either. It's a balancing act that most movies do not negotiate well.

In this, The DUFF is not alone. It is a film that relies heavily on modernity, with numerous gimmicks about Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the like flying by at high speed. But those modern trappings are a crutch, an unnecessary one at that, because the heart of the story is a solid one.


In it, Mae Whitman (Arrested Development, Parenthood) plays Bianca, a high school senior focused less on the surface-level things her peers are. She dresses in flannels and overalls, is proud of her idiosyncratic interests like horror films and journalism, and doesn't much care about social advancement – she's happy where she is, with two great friends (Santos and Samuels) by her side every step of the way. They're supportive of her, she's loyal to them, they cruise down the hallways at school being invited to parties and such. At one such party, Bianca's next-door neighbor, Wesley (Robbie Amell), informs her that she is the DUFF of her friend group, the “designated ugly fat friend.” She's the approachable one, not considered dateable by the guys at school because her friends are deemed to be more attractive than her.

Of course, it's silly to think of Mae Whitman as fat or ugly, but the movie asks you to bear with it for the sake of a positive message about accepting yourself. It even goes out of its way to say that the term is a “catch-all” and doesn't really have anything to do with body weight or whether she's actually pretty – it's all about the comparative perception. Not the strongest argument, but that's the point. Moving on.

Bianca doesn't take this revelation well. She dumps her unwitting friends under the false assumption they use her to make themselves look better, initiating the movie's most irritating problem. In their quasi-breakup scene, they perpetuate a tortured joke about all the ways Bianca is removing them from her life, with every version of “de-friending” imaginable mentioned. It goes on forever. It's an attempt to be of the times and comment on the ubiquity of social media in our lives, but it's lazy. The “social media is everywhere and pretty annoying!” jokes in real life are old the second they leave the joker's lips, which is partially a function of the instantaneous nature of the medium. When you put them in a movie, a project that takes at least two years from start to finish, those already old jokes become more than tiresome. It's a too-easy way to cram in some more gags to pad out the running time of a short movie, and the ungraceful way it's handled makes it feel like what it is: tacked on. There's nothing wrong with these characters utilizing social media – the movie accomplishes this just fine with the scenes involving the school's resident mean girl (Bella Thorne) filming her life as a perpetual tryout for a reality show – but to call it out so verbally violates the old “show, don't tell” rule that obscures the special parts of the movie.

And the most special of those parts is the chemistry between Whitman and Amell. He's a jock, sure, but he has a Ferris Bueller-style ability to talk with and get along with everyone. Because of this, she enlists him to teach her to be more attractive in order to reel in her big crush, a guitar-playing softie with Farrah Fawcett hair. He coaches her through the hardest parts of confidence building – he gives her quotas of guys to talk to and hit on at the mall, with her various failures serving as some of the best jokes in the film – and they have the kind of patter you'd expect for people who have known each other since they were in diapers. There's a real sense of comfort between them, which allows for Bianca to eventually thrive. This goes about the way you'd expect for a teen romantic comedy, with one more unnecessary, shoehorned plot contrivance regarding Bianca's crush – there's no plot-related need for him to be a jerk, essentially – but it provides a solid take on a well-worn arc. Whitman and Amell prove themselves to be big comedic stars in the making, the movie has some laughs, and in the end it's a commendable lark, if nothing important – a lesser entry in the Mean Girls-Easy A set.

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