The DUFF, based on the book by Kody Keplinger, is a new teen rom-com in the tradition of Easy A. Like the film that helped launch Emma Stone toward superstardom, though not quite as good, The DUFF won’t stay with you far past its runtime. But as a vehicle, it’s ample proof that we should be seeing more of Mae Whitman.
In some ways, Bianca (Whitman) is your typical “different” high school heroine. She wears flannel, edits her school’s paper, and has weird interests in unpopular things like zombies. Unlike her teen movie predecessors, Kat Stratford and Laney Boggs, however, Bianca has Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). They’re her hot friends, which, as Bianca’s dreamy next door neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell) points out, makes her the “designated ugly fat friend,” or the approachable point of entry for interested guys.
Since the acronym is more a somewhat accurate social observation than a plot, the story then shifts into a rote quid pro quo between Bianca, who wants dating advice, and Wesley, whose failing grades could cost him a football scholarship. The rest of the script is equally lazy, mistaking 2015 buzzwords like Instagram, tumblr, and Vine for punch lines and dropping mean girls with camera phones into any situation that’s convenient, no matter how illogical (e.g. when Bianca and Wes get caught together in the middle of the woods).
The film’s biggest crime, however, is never establishing Bianca’s central friendship with Jess and Casey beyond the realms of voice-over and expository dialogue. We never see them talk or share a moment outside of what the plot demands, leaving the audience to wonder whether their social order-defying bond could ever really happen. Their relationship is so superficial that it ends up working against the film’s otherwise positive messages about friendship and self-esteem, which is a shame considering how rarely we get a story from this perspective.
The saving grace here is Mae Whitman, who breathes so much wit, humor, and charm into Bianca that the film’s insulting title never makes complete sense. She stands so far above the rest of the film — minus Allison Janney, who can do no wrong — that she often betters those around her, including Amell, who actually wakes up when he’s opposite Whitman. As misspent of an opportunity as The DUFF may be, it’s hard to completely dismiss a film that gives someone as talented as Whitman her long-overdue spotlight. B-