When Bianca's (Mae Whitman) world is shattered from the discovery that her entire school knows her as 'The Duff', she enlists the slick but charming Wesley (Robbie Amell) to help shed her 'label' and overthrow mean girl Madison (Bella Thorne). Funny, feisty and fun. 'The Duff' is here to remind everyone that no matter how people look or act it's who we are inside that counts.
In the hierarchy of the high school social caste system, the Duff appears to be most awkward of placements. The term is an acronym for the Designated Ugly Fat Friend. They exist as a leveler and proxy for the cool kids at school. If you want to find out if the hot girl at school has a thing for you, ask her Duff. To know that you’re a Duff is the same method as discovering the sucker at a poker table - if you can’t tell who it is, you’re probably it. From such a term in the title, this teen comedy could’ve easily gone the predictable route of rising in ranks and quantifying the school into factions. To my surprise, this is a film where such order isn’t foremost on the minds of these kids. But when they start to think about cruelness of it all, their world becomes scary with labels.
For Bianca (Mae Whitman), she never saw herself as the Duff. She’s a well-read, hilarious and geeky girl who favors zombie movies over boys and makeup. Her interests never felt like a middle-finger against society - it’s just what she loves to do. Bianca never really considered the fact that she is mostly ignored around her group of friends and only asked by other boys about her hot friends. When her childhood friend and top jock Wesley (Robbie Amell) informs her about her Duff status, she starts seeing the high school world in a different light. Bianca doesn’t look the least bit fat or even ugly. In fact, she’s downright cute in both her appearance and spirit. But Wes let’s her know that Duff is not to be taken literally - it refers more to the lower rung of a social circle. In this case, she makes her friends look hotter by association and acts as the smart receptionist of the group. Having taken a liking to a particular boy at school, Bianca desperately seeks the help of Wesley to launch herself out of being a Duff.
Again, this could’ve been entirely predictable as the girl who goes from geek to chic. The chemistry between Bianca and Wes, however, is what saves the movie from being a tired exercise in reimagining the lonely girl. Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell have exceptional comedic timing in just about every scene they share. Their visit to a clothing shop to shape a new image narrowly avoids the sexist bullet by letting the actors have fun with the old scenario. Bianca playfully mocks her clothing choices and practices her flirtation on a mannequin with amazing comic delivery. Wes simply encourages her on with his sweet and honest tone of a true friend. It’s clear as day they’re going to hook up in the end despite being interested in other people, but it doesn’t matter considering they’re already the perfect couple. Even if they don’t become an item, they’re just fun to be around.
Bianca is also prone to some fantastical daydreams of what she’d want to do in certain situations. Every time she makes contact with her crush at school, she imagines giving him a blunt display of her hormones that results in an intense makeout session. Easily the most hilarious bit of the film is how Bianca imagines her and Wes filming a campy porno with writing and acting played up for the ultimate camp value. Cutaways aside, Bianca has some wonderful wit for being the smart and snarky outsider. She finds herself cracking wise so heavily with her friends that some of her references go over their heads. I can’t imagine the strange bubble she lives in being the only teenager to know Bela Lugosi.
But for as mean-spirited as the film could have become for featuring a viral video of bullying and vicious words of hearts broken by shattered friendships, there is a kindness and warmth to this high school comedy. Bianca never feels like an excuse for jokes nor does Wes play to the expected stereotypes of movie jocks. They are both established as real characters with humor that comes more genuine than any teen comedy I’ve seen in the past few years. Their progression is charmingly adorable, but I have to admit the film fumbles in its finale. There’s nothing more embarrassing than that stand-up-to-the-bullies moment where Bianca has to spell out the worthless nature of assigning social roles. If the audience got this from the first act, why does it need to be spelled out so bluntly in the third? I wish the film would’ve come back to reality at this moment, hoping that Bianca admits her little speech was too corny.
The Duff is one of the few and proud high school comedies worthy to follow in the footsteps of John Hughes. It finds relatable modern elements to the high school setting, but still breathes with its own fresh brand of comedy. The plot is all too familiar, but punched up with just enough surprises and laughs to make it work. It may not hit a bullseye with every scene in that a few bits of dialogue don’t quite fit, but it’s surprising just how much of it is on target. Somewhere between the dramatic commentary on teenage life and the over-the-top humor of high school sex comedies, The Duff finds itself a cozy medium.