The DUFF (2015)
The “it” thing at the box office seems to be adapting young adult literature. Between that and the domination of superheroes, I’m not sure much of anything else nets a fighting chance. One of the most recently adapted features is based off a popular book that teaches a surprisingly valuable lesson, but in the process has to wade through some clutter that strips away important pieces of the good.
With her two best friends at her side, high school isn’t such a bad place for Bianca (Mae Whitman). She’s got friendships that date back to her childhood and though they’re all very different, the girls aren’t afraid to let their individual personalities shine. Bianca needs that sounding board with a mother who turned her divorce into a money-making, national book and the tour that follows. But Bianca’s well-ordered world is about to change. A party invitation issued by the most popular girl (Bella Thorne) in school brings her face-to-face with her longtime neighbor (Robbie Amell), who inadvertently tells her something she doesn’t know with one very cruel acronym. Wesley enlightens her with the news that Bianca is, in fact, a “DUFF” (Designated Ugly Fat Friend).
Feeling betrayed and left out of the loop, Bianca severs ties with her friends and retains what little dignity she thought she possessed. Even if that means she has to go to Wesley. You see, she wants to have her "DUFF" status reversed... only things get a whole lot worse before they get better.
Keeping with my tradition of informing whether or not I’ve read the book, the answer is, no. Some research in the form of reading book reviews told me The Duff (authored by Kody Keplinger) was not my kind of book – the concept was well-meaning, the rest sounded the opposite. With its up-and-coming cast and cute promotional material, early on I decided The Duff was something I’d eventually see. That said, I don’t know how well this adapted to screen, but have read or been told by fellow book bloggers, the script is as good as the source material.
The shining moments of the script are many, including some witty banter between its fantastically good cast (which we’ll get into later on). This is overshadowed by one particularly bad “crude” sequence that might have a purpose yet still should have had a lessened impact. We “got” the point long before the writers cut the gag. But seriously, I think that’s really the only real grudge I’d have against the film. For a lighthearted teen comedy, this is one of the better ones (speaking to its story). This story is actually, sincere. It makes its point through the characters and the decisions they make even in adversity. Reflections of a Cinderella subject might crop up during the story, but the story doesn’t use the typical tropes as the often-retold fairytale (though not when comparing this to the classic version of the Cinderella story, which to me is personified in Disney’s recent adaptation). In fact, in some ways, The Duff improves on the idea of transformation and makes the story stronger for the 21st century.
Saying this is going to spoil the story, but commenting on it feels right since it's the prism I liked best about the film. The progression of Bianca’s “change” felt the most natural I’ve encountered from a young adult film – or any for that matter. She doesn’t change who she is, so much as learn to stand up for who she is. Instead of an outward transformation, she takes what she learns and funnels that into the best pieces of the core person she already knows she is and can be. That type of writing is significant and rare. If we can absorb any lessons from the film, it’d be that. We shouldn’t let anyone bully us into becoming the “perfect” something if that’s not who we are.
The cast have been around for a while (I remember Mae Whitman from way back when in the TV Christmas movie, Season for Miracles) though they aren’t as popular to the big screen. Mae is fantastic as Bianca. A mix of insecure (who isn’t?!) and sass, she quickly endears herself to the viewer, while Robbie plays opposite her as the perfect foil for her insecurities. Where she lets gossips get to her, Wesley is the popular all-American kid who is nothing doing in the self-doubting department. Most recently, Robbie Amell plays in a recurring role in The Flash, and fans of the superhero show will definitely like him in this. The fabulous banter the script lays out is terrific and the two people engaging in said banter? They deliver it with the kind of aplomb we needed for The Duff. There’s a natural “pull” to their chemistry that makes the film undeniably cute.
A unique combination of cute and sassy, The Duff isn’t afraid to be vulnerable without losing its “edge” of confidence. There’s a great story, even if it is hidden. Fans of She’s the Man or really, any other film in this genre are sure to like this film. It opened to decently complimentary reviews and I can see why. Whatever its motive, the story is one many of us will relate to. We can be ruled by our insecurities, and when they’re put on display for everyone around us to see, we’re in danger of retreating further into that approach. Fortunately, Bianca was wise enough to use her humiliation for good.
(Rated PG13 for good reason, there is plenty of stereotypical content involving teenagers. An awkward sequence involving Bianca and a store mannequin [using the mannequin's arms to move around her breasts and other suggestive movement] is caught on video, a video manipulated to exaggerate the scene, and then played for school as a means of humiliation. There’s a "slapstick" dream scene that is a kind of "imagined" scene from a porn film - a girl on a bed and a man in his underwear delivering pizza. References to kissing and “hooking up” play a role at various points. There is some language – one f-word, h*ll, etc. – and crude humor, coupled with thematic elements regarding bullying.)