By playing the role of Bianca ‘The DUFF’ Piper, actress Mae Whitman finds herself in the midst of being typecast. She plays this precocious misfit so well, that I can already envision casting agents salivating. The predicament Whitman and those eager agents find themselves in is that The DUFF isn’t a great movie nor particularly memorable. Its resonating buzz will be made up of satisfactory shoulder shrugs and head bobs from those who weren’t asking for much when they bought a ticket.
The DUFF rolls off the teen movie conveyor belt and tries to fashion its dreary premise into something more relevant using hashtags, social media, and apps. The phrase “you’ve seen this one before” would only make this review as familiar as The DUFF is to other superficial teen movies.
There is, however, a likeable charm that glows under the film’s formula. Everyone is trying to make the best out of such predictable fodder, which has been adapted from Kody Keplinger’s novel by Bandslam co-writer Josh A. Cagan.
Ari Sandel’s movie begins with unremarkable strokes. Apparently, in high school, groups of friends have a key member to their clique which they refer to as the “DUFF”. The acronym stands for: Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Filmmakers have always toyed around with a teenage character who is an unaware schlepp, but this movie may be the first modern flick to use that outline for a plot.
Bianca finds out she’s the “DUFF” in her group, and parts ties. Her jock buddy Wesley (played by Robbie Amell) hangs around for moral support and to offer “guy pointers” despite rotten feedback from his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Madison played by Bella Thorne of Blended). Bianca and Wesley hit it off as Bianca vies for an artsy hunk. Meanwhile, onlookers with iPhones record and ridicule her on the Internet.
The cyberbullying opens up an unnecessary and clumsy after school special. I haven’t read Keplinger’s novel, so I can’t comment on if this side-activity offers more depth to this underdog tale. But, Romany Malco (as Principal Buchanon) doesn’t know subtlety when he awkwardly barrels through the timely dilemma. When he’s on screen, the movie stops in its tracks. On the plus side, Ken Jeong (of the Hangover movies) is tender and funny as Bianca’s journalism teacher. When Jeong’s on screen, he picks up where Malco left off. Maybe the actors should’ve switched roles.
Apart from Whitman’s winning breakout performance, the optimistic fortitude The DUFF learns to embrace is what eventually wins the audience over. It isn’t a sweeping victory, but it’s peppy and cute enough to have us shrugging our shoulders and bobbing our head in agreement as we exit the theatre.