While watching the most recent entry into the Teen High School Dramedy genre The Duff it was difficult disassociating it from the legion of films that have come before it that have all generally told the same story in just about every way imaginable, albeit with a few wrinkles added in here and there to try and make them stand out. It’s not that The Duff is bad or even inconsequential, in its quest to forge its own unique identity in the overcrowded genre it has somehow Duff’ed (yes, that’s a term now) itself and has instantly become the (D)esignated (U)nnecessary (F)lawed (F)ilm of its respective genre.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) isn’t your average High School girl. She isn’t into parties, dances or the whole dating scene. Instead she likes to either hangout with her two hot girlfriends Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos) or have some serious me time watching subtitled Japanese horror flicks in her geektacular bedroom. Everything was going fine for Bianca until she suddenly had her world rocked when her former childhood friend, resident football jock and boy next door Wes (Robbie Amell) informs her that she is a D.U.F.F. which stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend and apparently describes the middle man for those looking to hook up with a Duff’s hotter friends. As she begins to go through the five stages of grief as outlined by her mother (Allison Janney) Bianca quickly realizes that being labeled a Duff isn’t the worst thing that can happen to her.
So fragile and self contained is the world of the American teenager that short of a meteor hitting the planet the most important things in life are your social status, who you are dating and now apparently if you are a Duff or not. That goes double for teenage girls who according to every teen movie known to man have got it the worst when it comes to identifying who they are and what they want out of life without having some sort of social implosion being the catalyst for their journey to self discovery. The Duff doesn’t do much different in that department other than offer up a brand new label for those wearisome early movie montages that display on screen text designating the subject’s clique or social circle.
But even with the majority of topics already being covered by countless other Teen comedies there is still some room for whatever new topics arise such as the latest term to be entered into the Urban Dictionary, Duff. Furthermore social media and its impact on teens is something that has been touched upon in other recent High School flicks but the subject is so vast and complicated that it has the potential to spawn dozens of films looking to provide their own angle of the argument for or against it. The Duff sets itself up to do just that and it sort of succeeds in spite of its schizophrenic script, but where it ultimately falls short is in how it plagiarizes nearly every single one of its peers in the process.
We aren’t talking simply borrowing or being influenced by, The Duff shamelessly recycles nearly every cliche in the book. If you have seen even a modicum of the films available out there that use High School and the Teen social world as a storytelling device then chances are you will have a similar reaction to myself. In an almost obsessive way The Duff makes sure to include an element of every Teen movie ever made in one way or another. Its similarities to other films become so blatant and redundant after a while that you can almost make a game out of it by replacing key words in the title of the respective “influence” with the word Duff as the references fly by for a bit of fun.
Invisible nobody hires someone to make them a somebody? How about Can’t Buy Me Duff, 10 Things I Hate About Duff or She’s All Duff. Evil pretty girl sabotages not so pretty girl? How about Mean Duffs. Main character learns a life lesson through their ordeal and expresses it to their classmates via the internet at the end? How about Easy D(uff). Girl suddenly realizes the man she wants has been right there the whole time? How about Duffless or Can’t Hardly Duff. That’s just the tip of the iceberg mind you as there are likely many more where those came from. But that doesn’t make the film bad necessarily, just highly derivative of other arguably better films.
As is often the case with these types of films the saving grace happens to be its star, which in this case is the young and talented Mae Whitman in her very first starring role. Aside from being the voice for everyones favorite waterbender Katara from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, a short stint as Michael Cera’s girlfriend in the television series Arrested Development and then subsequently getting in a fight with the very same Michael Cera over an old flame in Scott Pilgrim and then having a long lasting home on the television series Parenthood, Mae Whitman has flown under the radar…until now.
If there is one thing The Duff does that makes it standout from those other teen movies while simultaneously recreating a similar effect for its star, it is to act as a showcase for an actor who deserves to be noticed. Whitman was the perfect choice for the character of Bianca, not because she is a Duff (far from it), but because she is the perfect example as to why the term D.U.F.F. is so negligible as she is neither ugly or fat, two of the most hurtful words in that acronym. True, she doesn’t look like a runway model but that is where the casting of her does most of the work for the film. One of the most true moments in the film is when Wes sees Bianca wearing the dress he got her and remarks that she looks good, but she doesn’t look like her. Amen to that brother.
Mae Whitman stands as an inarguable contradiction to that label because she proves that any superficial tags people place on us is just a way of making themselves feel better about their own insecurities. Whitman is a very pretty girl which already places her right next to all the so called super model girls like the films evil queen B played to nauseating perfection by Bella Thorne, but when you see who Bianca is and what makes her tick she easily outshines any of her toothpick sistren. When Bianca eventually reaches that fifth stage of acceptance it is a beautiful and honest moment that hammers home the films heartfelt, if not conventional message.
The film’s message of being true to yourself, which other than being extremely trite, gets muddled with a number of different sudden shifts in direction but still manages to come through nice and clear in thanks to the sheer presence of Whitman and her zestful performance. Other than some odd moments of coincidence (did the same girl have to be in the right place at the right time twice?), the only area the film truly falters is despite having an erratic narrative is still highly predictable in both who Bianca ends up with and having the grand finale take place at the big dance.
What all this boils down to is the fact that The Duff would be nothing without its star of whom will likely end up being the only thing anyone who sees it will take from it, for better or worse. But if that is all you get out of the experience (which isn’t likely since the film can be enjoyable and entertaining most of the time for what it is), then that’s alright. If you are in the mood for yet another quirky teen romantic comedy about the trials and tribulations of the modern day teenager then you could do far worst than The Duff.
Is The Duff worth seeing solely for Mae Whitman? In most cases that would be a negative since hardly any film can be saved by its star, but in this particular case the film itself isn’t really that bad. If you can stomach all the similarities from all those other classic teen movies and alright with knowing how it is all going to end as soon as it starts, then consider this a mild recommendation.