Say hello to the surprise comedy hit of the year. At first glance of the title, everything about The Duff— which stands for, classily enough, Designated Ugly Fat Friend — suggested lame, unfunny and even disastrous. I certainly didn’t expect very much at all.
The only thing I was banking on was its lead actress, Mae Whitman, best known to me as “Her?” (Ann Veal, aka Egg) from Arrested Development. Whitman showed real comedic chops from that performance and shined in supporting roles in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (her first cinematic role was actually as Bill Pullman’s daughter in Independence Day).
In The Duff, Whitman established herself as a bona fide star capable of carrying a film from start to finish. She plays Bianca, a smart but frumpy high schooler with two attractive best friends, “hot” blonde bombshell Jess (Skyler Samuels) and “spicy” Latino Casey (Bianca Santos). Her next-door neighbour, the spunky jock Wesley (Robbie Amell, cousin of Arrow‘s Stephen) tells Bianca that she’s a Duff, a term she had never heard of before but suddenly makes a whole lot of sense and turns her life upside down.
The plot takes a turn when Bianca and Wes make a deal — she would help him pass chemistry, while he would help her win the affections of her crush, the hair-swinging school musician Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman). The amount of time Bianca and Wes spend together, however, does not go down well with his on-off girlfriend, mean queen Madison (Bella Thorne).
I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound that great. And yet, The Duff somehow turns out to be a fantastic teen comedy with some real laughs and a valuable message or two for its target audience. Most of the credit goes to Whitman’s energetic performance, which makes her believable regardless of whether she’s being silly or sad.
Whitman completely elevates this film above that of an ordinary teen flick. She’s not a classic beauty by any stretch but she’s got a magnetic charm and a fearless confidence about her that makes Bianca easy to like and root for. She is at her absolute hilarious best when she just goes for it in a scene without the slightest evidence of self-consciousness.
While the sassy Whitman carries the film, she is supported by a very strong cast. Amell has a goofy charm even when he’s being a douche, and while Thorne’s mean girls impersonation is spot there is still humour to be found in her nastiness. Even Eversman delivers as the man of Bianca’s affections with a nice-guy routine that works perfectly with her overt insecurities.
Also fantastic are the “adults” of the film, led by the legendary Ken Jeong (you know, from The Hangover) as a teacher. I also really liked the performances of Romany Malco (from TV’s Weeds) as the principal and the brilliant Allison Janney as Bianca’s single mother. None of them have big roles, but each are given the freedom to wield the personality quirks that make them so funny.
It’s unfortunate that The Duff likely won’t be remembered in the same breath as revered generational classics of the genre like Clueless, Mean Girls and Easy A, because it totally deserves to be in their company. Sadly, it probably even won’t be remembered alongside the second-tier films like Never Been Kissed. Sure, the film is far from perfect and falls prey to typically cringeworthy moments, teen flick tropes and rom-com cliches, but at the end of the day I hope it will go down as a cult classic. It’s genuinely funny, it’s timely (given that its plot is intertwined with the social media age), it has a positive message for teens (about self image and cyberbullying), and it’s driven by a star-making performance. I think it’s a film that will age really well.
4 stars out of 5