The DUFF (2015)

Director: Ari Sandel
Writer: Josh A. Cagan
Cinematographer: David Hennings
Composer: Dominic Lewis
Cast: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Allison Janney, Ken Jeong, Bella Thorne, Skyler Samuels.

I usually don’t watch movies that focus on teenagers, especially since I am growing closer to the age of their parents and I have stopped having things in common with millennials over the years. When I found out, however, what the title of this movie meant I felt like I should watch it and see how it handled what is a pretty abysmal topic to center a story around. For those not in the know, as I was a few days ago, DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. I’m sure, or at least hope, nobody remembers the terribly offensive Jack Black/Gwyneth Paltrow “comedy” Shallow Hal from a few years ago, but there was a scene in a club in which in it pointed out that when women hang out with an uglier friend their own beauty is accentuated and magnified. Hilarious, right?

That concept serves as the thesis for this movie, as a young teenagers has pointed out to her that she is said uglier friend in her group and with the help of a jock she attempts to improve her ranks in the high school hierarchy. The jock, who is also the childhood friend and happens to be the next door neighbor as well, does not help the girl out of the kindness of her heart, but rather does it in exchange for tutoring because shockingly a student athlete is failing in school. He is also the on and off again boyfriend of the prettiest girl in school who is also the resident mean girl who has it out for everyone for no apparent reason other than… lazy screenwriting? I’m not sure.

Part of the suspension of disbelief surrounds the casting of this DUFF. Mae Whitman is actually really pretty, and at least the movie doesn’t attempt to make her uglier or exaggerate any possible and/or perceivable flaw. But the fact that she isn’t unattractive and is very charming makes the movie quite baffling, since it is ludicrous to believe that she would be so ridiculed for someone who would be completely normal in such an environment.

Overall the movie is cute and at times entertaining. Allison Janney plays Whitman’s mother and provides the only actual laughs in the film, further establishing her as an ultimate scene stealer in otherwise forgettable films. The problems of the movie are mostly due to the message(s) presented in it. At once the film seems to attempt (unsuccessfully) to criticize labeling, especially amongst teenagers, while at the same time reinforcing them at every turn. It attempts to prove that to be an individual of worth one does not need to be validated from the outside, yet feels the need to validate all the likable characters in the end. It tries to prove that the outside doesn’t matter, but the characters are asked to change the outside in order to fit in. Nothing is really problematized or confronted. While these may be too high expectations for what is really just a dumb if somewhat charming teen movie, they are justified because the movie itself raises them in the first place. While I cannot expect a feminist treatise from such a film, some fulfillment of the premise or, at the very least, an indictment of the title would have been welcome. Heck, even Mean Girls managed to somewhat do it while still being an entertaining fun movie that resonated with so many viewers.

At the end of the day, the movie seems to be mostly a vehicle for Whitman who has been working steadily in television for several years but has yet to transition to features. Her solid work on Parenthood, and to a lesser extent on Arrested Development has shown that she is a good actress and hopefully she will begin to attract meatier roles that allow her to stretch and expand her talents. This film will not be one she is remembered for, but she commits no sins in it, so hopefully we’ll be seeing her again soon in a part that is worthy of her talents.

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