Bianca is not the most popular girl in her class, but she has two really good friends and if she can’t bring herself to say more than three words in a row to her crush, well, she’s still got her friends. That is, until her neighbor, high school football star Wesley, informs her that she’s their DUFF – Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
Since Bianca (Mae Whitman) is neither fat nor ugly, she naturally takes offence until Wes (Robbie Amell, The Tomorrow People, The Flash) explains that one doesn’t have to actually be fat or ugly to be a DUFF – just enough less hot than her friends that people (as in guys) find her approachable (usually to ask about her friends).
Circumstances arise such that Wes finds himself suspended from the football over grades and Bianca wants to not be a DUFF – so she suggests that she’ll help him pass chemistry if he helps her rid herself of her DUFFness. She also ends her friendship with Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels).
Being seen clothes shopping with Wes leads to his on-again/off-again girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne) and her BFF, Caitlyn (Rebecca Weil) posting video Caitlyn took of Bianca online and emailing links to, well, everybody – including Toby (Nick Eversman), who was kind of the focus of Bianca’s playfulness in the store. Naturally, she thinks Wes posted the video, so… everyone hates everyone.
Except Bianca’s mother, Dottie (Allison Janney), a self-help guru who discovered the five stages of grief just after a divorce (she wanted custody of Bianca; he wanted custody of the dog) and turned them into a self-help book empire.
Things are complicated when Mr. Arthur, teacher sponsor of the school paper assigns Bianca to write a piece on what Homecoming means to her.
As teen comedies go, The DUFF is better than average. I have no idea how faithful it is to the book (yes, another movie based on a YA novel), but it’s smarter than usual and the characters are more substantial than the usual. Outside of Bianca’s shopping adventure, the events of The DUFF are not over-the-top and, as a result, the events surrounding that shopping trip have far more impact.
Also not the usual – the football star is not a total douche. Amell has a knack for timing and exploits it beautifully throughout, showing that he’s not just a bit of handsome beefcake. He also has great chemistry with Whitman – we believe they’ve lived next to each other since they were little kids.
Eversman makes Toby a sensitive but not too sensitive guy who seems perfect until he makes one huge error in judgement.
Thorne makes a deliciously mean Mean Girl. Madison is a walking audition for a reality series (that’s her stated ambition!) and her BFF, Caitlyn, is constantly filming her every move.
Santos and Samuels also do yeoman work as Bianca’s hotter friends who don’t even realize that she’s their DUFF.
Janney, as always, is delightfully offbeat as Dottie who eventually sheds the self-help guru shtick to dispense some down to earth advice when it really matters. Plus, she gets the PG-13 movie’s one F-bomb and makes sure it’s perfectly timed.
The DUFF, for all its intelligence, wouldn’t work if the lead was poorly cast so it’s a good thing that Whitman shines throughout. She’s always had a knack for the offhand line but she also has solid dramatic chops – when Bianca’s life looks like it’s falling apart, she makes us believe every moment of Bianca’s doubts and fears. When Bianca puts it all together (as we know she must), Whitman makes it feel like it was earned.
In the end, The DUFF is a slight but satisfying teen comedy that works precisely because it is slight and played in a mostly minor key.
Final Grade: B