Wednesday, February 25, 2015
THE DUFF (Ari Sandel, 2015)
Nearly every development and stylistic touch in THE DUFF has appeared in at least one other high school comedy, with MEAN GIRLS and EASY A serving as primary influences. Nevertheless, THE DUFF displays enough of its own charm and wisdom to distinguish it from the teen films with which it has much in common. Although it all looks and feels exceedingly familiar, director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan handle the material with sensitivity and insight.
Seniors Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) and her two best friends, Jess Harris (Skyler Samuels) and Casey Cordero (Bianca A. Santos), don’t rule Malloy High School but have enough social capital to grant them high-ranking status. Actually, that holds true for Jess and Casey, who are admired for their kindness and toughness, while the undefined Bianca drafts on her prettier friends’ desirability to hang with the cooler kids. About a month before homecoming Bianca is made aware of her function in the social order when Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), the popular boy next door, informs her that she is what’s known as the DUFF, or Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The DUFF’s role is to remain socially invisible while operating as a gatekeeper to his or her better-looking friends.
Wesley tells Bianca that the term isn’t literal, just that it refers to the least attractive person in the group, as if that takes away the sting. Bianca was unaware that this is how she is perceived and does not take the news well. She gets mad at Jess and Casey and cuts off communication with them, which just isolates her more from her classmates. When Wesley’s failing grades get him suspended from the football team, Bianca strikes a deal to help him pass science in return for him teaching her how to shed her DUFF qualities.
Wesley’s hurtful remarks put events in THE DUFF into motion, but the film resists being cruel. Although Bianca is embarrassed and humiliated at times, she’s never pitied as though she is some hideous girl who requires a magical transformation to be liked and loved. It’s key that THE DUFF does not have a moment in which Bianca lets her hair down or takes off proverbial glasses to reveal her inner hottie. Her fashion preferences for overalls, novelty tees, and flannel shirts may not do her any favors in getting noticed, but she’s comfortable wearing those clothes, which makes Bianca beautiful in a way that suits her.
THE DUFF hits upon an ingenious observation about teenage insecurity that a lot of these films tend to miss when changing their ugly ducklings into swans. Feeling lack of self worth is as much, if not mostly, the result of the messages one tells oneself than what others might think and say. Bianca is right to be offended that Wesley labels her as a DUFF, but her problems begin when she accepts his comments as fact. Previously she’d been at ease with herself, even when she was awkward. Jess and Casey’s words and actions contradict Wesley’s statement. The trio have a genuine friendship instead of a tool for socially engineering more popularity for Jess and Casey, but once Bianca adopts a negative self-image, she views everything through that lens.
THE DUFF’s wish fulfillment elements are generally believable because the screenplay establishes long-standing connections between many of the characters. Bianca and Wesley rank on different levels of the school’s social hierarchy, but they’ve also grown up together. Their budding attraction and casual conversations, including the one that instigates Bianca’s drop in confidence, ring of a certain kind of closeness that comes from knowing someone since childhood than a jock-nerd alliance of convenience. Whitman, perhaps best remembered as the forgettable Ann Veal on ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, shines in weathering Bianca’s emotional turbulence. Bianca is the smart, snarky sidekick pushed into the leading role, and Whitman invests her with humor, appealing eccentricity, vulnerability, and strength. Funny and sweet in spirit, THE DUFF shows that surviving high school can feel like running the gauntlet, but it can be a lot easier if you aren’t beating yourself.