Mae Whitman is one of those enormously talented young actors that has been waiting in the wings for a lead role for some time. The 26-year-old already has 119 IMDb credits to her name, breaking out in the mid-1990s with small turns as George Clooney and Bill Pullman’s daughter in One Fine Day and Independence Day, respectively. She has chops for both comedy and drama, and is able to squeeze out droll laughs as the nondescript Ann Veal on Arrested Development and then break your heart as the insecure Mary Elizabeth in The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Whitman has such tremendous ability on the screen that it is a pity her first major leap above the marquee is in such a mediocre film. The DUFF, based on Kody Keplinger’s novel, is a silly, clichéd and rarely convincing high-school comedy – perhaps because Whitman is too fresh and beautiful to resign to a role like Bianca, a character defined by her looks and size. The acronym from the title translates to Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a category given to the gatekeeper of better-looking friends who helps to ensure that high-school social hierarchies stick to the status quo.
Bianca is lifelong best friends with Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jessica (Skyler Samuels). The opening scene shows the three pals walking down the hallway in slow-motion, but does so from a teenage boy’s fetishized perspective as he scans up the bodies of the three characters. Casey and Jessica have long, thin legs and sway exactly like one expects a teenage boy would fantasize. When the camera moves up Bianca, however, the differences are clear: she lumbers in her walk, belches to herself and her suspenders sag on her slightly heavier frame.
Bianca is only considered a less appealing dating option because she is often seen with two skinnier girls. Casey and Jessica are easy to classify, which Ari Sandel’s film does early on through montages that scroll through the girls’ superficial social media profiles. Meanwhile, they aren’t the only flatly drawn characters at Malloy High. In a near mirror image of her role in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Bella Thorne portrays Madison, a walking, talking Bratz doll of sorts, with her eye on the handsome Wesley (Robbie Amell).
Madison aspires to be a reality TV star, and so her best friend walks alongside her carrying a camera, to prepare Madison for future celebrity. Wesley, whom is conveniently Bianca’s next door neighbor, becomes one of the protagonist’s only trusted companions. He asks for her chemistry notes in exchange for helping her transcend her DUFF status and improve her own chemistry with boys. One can probably guess where this friendship is headed from the first couple of scenes.
The DUFF is filled with thin female characters – both in their lithe frames and bare characterization – but the focus is primarily on Bianca. She dreads the thought of the upcoming Homecoming dance, which she wants to skip due to a Vincent Price marathon on television the same night. She further dreads her status as a DUFF, feeling betrayed since Casey and Jessica were not up front with her about this demoralizing social status. Most of all, she dreads speaking to her crush, mop-headed guitar player Toby (Nick Eversman).
Bianca should be a role that Whitman embraces, since she is adept with both drama and comedy. However, screenwriter Josh A. Cagan fails to give the protagonist a consistent tone and personality. In some scenes, Bianca is painfully shy and does not know how to express her insecurity to friends or family. In one of the film’s only poignant moments, Bianca pauses during a shopping spree to examine the thin department store mannequins and gives off a look of envy and frustration. That stare hints at the character’s anxiety with her body image. However, in moments not long after, Bianca has a gregarious, fun-loving personality, one that doesn’t seem to match the more closeted demeanor from early scenes. Cagan’s screenplay often resorts to removing the layers of hurt to turn Bianca into a defiant, sarcastic Juno clone, who can fend off her victimization with effusive wit. Unfortunately, this turns the protagonist into a less compelling character.
Meanwhile, Sandel’s film is reminiscent of various contemporary high-school classics. Besides the similarities with Juno, two montages – one of Bianca’s weekend locked in her bedroom, another of teens texting gossip at rapid speed so it reaches the whole student body within seconds – are cribbed from 2010’s Easy A. The sound cue of Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” during a moment of rebellion only makes us wish we were watching Freaks and Geeks.
Thankfully, The DUFF has a few savings graces, beyond Whitman’s dazzling screen presence. Janney is good, if undervalued, as Bianca’s motivational speaker mom, while Ken Jeong offers vibrant comic relief as Mr. Arthur, who bonds with the teenage outcast. There are also a few clever put-downs of the vapid, image-obsessed teen culture of today such as a scene where an instance of cyber-bullying against Bianca creates a hostile school environment. (The teachers have to collect the cell phones, much to the chagrin of their students.) Regardless, the online shaming should be a devastating experience for the protagonist, but is an event the script almost entirely forgets about a few minutes later.
There aren’t very many high-school comedies for the current generation of high-schoolers, many of whom probably don’t know who John Hughes is. With The DUFF, Sandel and Cagan try to capture Hughes’ spirit, yet have a hard time getting to the core of the protagonist. Whitman is a bona-fide talent who does all she can to charm audiences as the dorky Bianca, but she is better than the role she plays. Not observant or sly enough to be social satire or deep enough to get under the protagonist’s skin, The DUFF resists complexity, doing too little to get the characters to break out from defined categories.
Derivative of better teen comedies and not daring enough to deal with the consequences of an image-based culture, The DUFF wastes a talented young ensemble.