Sunday 26 May 2019

Movie Review: The DUFF (2015)

A high school teen comedy, The DUFF features a winsome lead but otherwise sticks close to a predictable path.

At an Atlanta-area high school, Bianca (Mae Whitman) is best friends with the more popular and more glamorous Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels). Bianca is a good student and a fan of old horror movies, but gets tongue-tied in front of her crush, the dishy Toby (Nick Eversman). She is devastated when school jock and neighbour Wesley (Robbie Amell) explains she is perceived as a Designated Ugly Fat Friend (DUFF) to Casey and Jess, the easy-to-approach but undesirable gatekeeper to more attractive friends.

Shocked, Bianca breaks-up her friendships and asks Wesley for advice to recreate her image in return for helping him improve his academic grades. Despite a nasty cyberbullying incident engineered by the vain Madison (Bella Thorne), with Wesley's help Bianca gathers up the courage to talk to Toby, but romantic feelings also start to bubble up between her and Wesley.

The DUFF enjoys edgy and culturally aware dialogue and is saturated with references to the teen obsession with cell phones and social media. But beneath the window dressing is safe adherence to well-worn messages about accepting who you are, rejecting labels and staring down bullies. The narration, the newspaper article as a framing plot device, and the climax at a homecoming dance where issues are resolved are also all disappointingly familiar.

Director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan do better at drawing two appealing central characters. With Mae Whitman in fine form, Bianca is a down-to-earth teen comfortable in her own skin until she is not, and her interactions with her school environment carry a refreshing genuineness. It takes a while for Wesley to emerge as the male counterpart, and Cagan does well to round out the usually shallow jock persona, Robbie Amell adding enough role depth to justify Bianca's interest.

The rest of the cast grapple with basic definitions, including Allison Janney as Bianca's mom, a dealing-with-divorce pop psychology seminar presenter.

The good moments feature Bianca processing Wesley's advice to try and reinvent herself and gain confidence talking to boys. In contrast the cyberbullying incident is overcooked to a crisp, and ultimately treated with a touch of worrisome dismissiveness.

In surrendering to the obvious The DUFF sets the bar relatively low, but anyway passes with a decent test score.

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