A ‘duff’ is the “designated ugly fat friend” that her more attractive friends have around them to make themselves look better by comparison. It’s actually in the Urban Dictionary online, so I presume it is a term in use nowadays. In this film, Bianca (Whitman) learns from her hunky neighbor Wesley (Arnell) that she is ‘The Duff’ to her friends Jess (Samuels) and Casey (Santos). She is a bright rather nerdy teen and has never heard the term so is mortified. Since her regard for herself is not all that great anyway and she’s a bit self-destructive and suspicious, she projects her anger onto her two best friends and ends the friendship—to their mystification and dismay, of course.
The director Ari Sandel and his crew have turned this film into something resembling Mean Girls (2004) by its dealing with high school conflicts, with the central character being a rather introverted, naïve person, and by introducing a character not in the novel (The Duff by Kody Keplinger), but who, like Regina in the earlier film is an “A-lister” who cannot abide a duff taking up with her ex-boyfriend. Madison (Thorne) is a mean girl who is filled with hubris and doesn’t mind at all bullying Bianca by helping to make videos of her made on the sly go viral at school.
Bianca, in her desperation enlists the help of her football star neighbor, Wesley, who is willing to coach her in becoming more attractive in exchange for her helping him get a passing grade in science.
I found The Duff to be smarter than I had expected (there are some laugh-out-loud scenes as well as transitions and developments that have substance), and the actors are good at playing high school students. I’m just puzzled why filmmakers don’t cast teenagers in a movie about teenagers; All the main characters are obviously 10 or more years older than high school students. It’s not as if there aren’t a slew of good age-appropriate actors at their disposal. This was particularly bothersome in Arnell’s case because he looks so much like Tom Cruise.
The adults in the film do show their acting chops and electrify the scenes they are in. Allison Janney plays Bianca’s mother who is a pop psychology guru who shows little interest in her daughter until the very end. But she is a hoot nevertheless. Similarly, Ken Jeong plays a journalism teacher who has the best of intentions, but clearly makes the students’ eyes roll. He’s a fine character actor who also captures attention when he is on.
Although they did decide to include a “nasty” stereotypical high school girl in the story, I did appreciate the filmmakers’ portrayal of Bianca’s friends as caring, loyal, and supportive—as many girls that age are. They also presented intelligence and studiousness in a positive light—not altogether nerdy—as sometimes happens in films for young people.
The Duff is lightly entertaining with substantive points to make about high school.
Grade: C+ By Donna R. Copeland