The Duff is a high school comedy which purports to be about the arbitrary nature of labels, but isn’t quite ready to exist without them. It’s also a movie about dating and the social hierarchy and bullying and self-image and the nature of beauty and social media. (Because teen comedies can’t just be about friendship, anymore). The film grasps at so many themes and plot elements that its most charming feature—an unlikely, weird friendship between the protagonist Bianca (who’s basically invisible in her high school) and her nemesis, a “jock” named Wes—flounders, only to be given artificial respiration under the guise of an obvious and clichéd romance.
Wes is played by Robbie Amell, whose eyebrows look like perfectly manicured little boomerangs, framing his forehead in a constant furrow. (He looks like a young Louis Jourdan.) His character is more than a bit confounding, probably because the movie, which claims to be anti-labeling, labels him a “jock” and a “man-whore” from the word go, and then tries to humanize him. (It works because Amell has charm to spare even when he’s being sleazy, and despite a contrived effort to give him home-life problems near the end of the film.)
Bianca seems to dislike Wes, even though they grew up together and he is the only guy who pays any attention to her. (Granted, he’s also kind of a jerk to her, unless they’re alone, which is when he actually acts like a friend.) It is Wes who sets the plot into motion, by telling Bianca that in her friendship with beautiful, popular girls Jessica and Casey, Bianca is the “duff” or the “designated ugly fat friend.” Bianca has no reason to suspect Jessica and Casey of such conspiracy, but she dumps them anyway (in a badly staged scene in the school library).
The Duff has a lot of structural problems, and chief among these is the way it loses track of certain plot elements and characters. After Bianca’s friendship with Jessica and Casey goes on the skids, we barely see them until the end of the movie. A film about teenage girls that fails to explore the dynamics of their friendship feels a bit like a copout. The movie awkwardly transitions into a romantic teen comedy about a girl who’s anti-labels trying to change herself so that she can impress a guy.
This is director Ari Sandel’s first feature (he won an Oscar for his 2005 short film West Bank Story), and he is working with a script by Josh A. Cagan from Kody Keplinger’s novel. Sandel doesn’t yet have the knack of shaping a scene and drawing out the humor organically. There are some laughs, but Sandel relies too heavily obvious jokes and mugging from his performers. And, what’s more, he ties everything together with a clumsy narration from his star, Mae Whitman (whom viewers may remember as the girlfriend of Michael Cera’s character on Arrested Development). Whitman’s character, Bianca, often embarrasses herself for a laugh, and while this kind of self-deprecating humor can be charming, it sometimes feels like an act of desperation on the director’s part, as though he weren’t sure why we should like Bianca in the first place.
There’s a scene where Bianca and Wes go to a mall so that Bianca can revamp her wardrobe. Despite the fact that Wes is Bianca’s nemesis (at this point in the film, anyway), she enlists his help because he’s popular and knows what makes a girl look appealing. At least, that’s what Bianca imagines. But Bianca tries on a series of hideous outfits and the scene turns into a big joke. We’re just never sure who the joke is supposed to be on. Bianca makes out with a mannequin (calling him Toby, after the boy on whom she has a crush), while Wes records the scene with his phone so they can “evaluate” her later. This scene is really just a setup for one of the movie’s major plot points: Bianca’s mugging is also recorded by an underling of the high school queen bee and the video goes viral. Bianca becomes the school pariah, and all because the queen bee (played by Madison Morgan, who’s terrific and possesses not just a flare for being conniving and narcissistic, but also a real comic touch that accentuates her performance).
The Duff is an imperfect comedy, but even still, that moment—when the girl and the guy express their love for each other at the school prom— that we’ve been essentially conditioned to expect in a film like this is somehow just as exciting as if it were new. And, even though the film has problems, I appreciate that it has layers to it, despite the fact that those layers aren’t very seamlessly put together.
With Allison Janney (as Bianca’s mom) and Ken Jeong (as her journalism teacher).