Can no teen movie be made nowadays without invoking John Hughes? This one revives The Breakfast Club (turning 30 this year; pause to grimace at advancing gray hair) by declaring obsolete the old high school hierarchy – bye-bye bullies and basket cases. The geeks now rule the earth (heyyyy, Marvel), so a new pecking order, and a new nomenclature, is required. Enter the DUFF – shorthand for “designated ugly fat friend.” Smart, smart-alecky Bianca (Whitman) is aghast to discover that she’s widely considered to be the DUFF to her two best friends. So what’s a smart and smart-alecky girl to do? Make a lot of dumb decisions, apparently.
An adaptation of Kody Keplinger’s YA novel, The DUFF is exponentially dumb. For starters, Mae Whitman isn’t fat or ugly. Point of fact, she’s wildly charismatic – see her baby work in One Fine Day and When a Man Loves a Woman, or her more mature work in Arrested Development, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Parenthood. She’s also teeny-tiny – like, short enough to worry about riding roller coasters safely – which I guess is why the filmmakers thought they could get away with passing off a mid-twentysomething as a high schooler. I adore Mae Whitman – if somebody hasn’t already written a sonnet about how majestically she cries, I’ll do it – but it’s wincing, watching her jump through so many illogical, even embarrassing hoops for a such a throwaway teen movie.
The makeover plot contrives a back-scratching arrangement between Bianca and her bohunk, next-door neighbor Wesley (Amell): He’ll coach her into finding her inner hottie, and she’ll tutor him in chemistry. (It’s no wonder he’s flunking out; those chiseled abs are a full-time job.) I don’t quibble with a story about a special young woman struggling and finally celebrating her skin, but the only thing that makes Bianca special is what Whitman brings to a part so underwritten her only definable character traits are literally plastered on her wall (she digs zombie movies, and zombie posters) or on her body (she wears a lot of plaid). Amell, of the CW’s The Flash, has real screen presence, too, but there’s not a lot that can be done with a guy who exhibits zero moral courage. That might have been an interesting avenue to explore – flaws are the making of a good, or at least watchable, character – but first-time feature director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan (Bandslam) are more about moving cardboard cutouts to their Candyland conclusion.
Millennials’ phone fixation is a plot point and an aesthetic directive – hashtags and text speech fly at you from all angles – but there’s nothing new or particularly enlightening being communicated about what it’s like to be a teen in these hypermediated times. (For now, at least, Easy A is still the gold standard.) What the filmmakers are savvy about is the ascendancy of the weirdo – it’s the new nerd – which is why the film’s tidy, empty solution is for Bianca to proudly own the label. It couldn’t be more superficial if she had sewn it on her shirt.
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