'The Duff' Is the Best Teen Movie Since 'Mean Girls'
Calling a movie The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) and casting Mae Whitman as the title character is enough to discourage anyone from wanting to watch it. In fact, in attempting to extol its virtues to others, I’ve found it difficult to get past the premise before I am tuned out. “That’s really fucked up. Mae Whitman is beautiful. How dare they! That movie can go straight to to hell.”
I know, I know. But it’s not what you think it is. Well, it is, but it also isn’t. Yes, DUFF does stand for Designated Fat Ugly Person, and yes, Mae Whitman plays The DUFF, but in this context, DUFF doesn’t literally mean, Ugly Fat Friend. It means, the least attractive, more approachable member of any group of friends, and Whitman’s character — Bianca — is a DUFF by virtue of having two of the “hottest” girls in her high school as best friends.
That doesn’t really help, does it?
But it’s the message that the movie is attempting to get across that makes it so exceptional, and it needed an egregiously offensive label like DUFF to effectively relay its point. The DUFF is not a She’s All That make-over movie about a beautiful woman who takes off her glasses and is even more beautiful. It’s a movie about a less traditionally beautiful woman (in the high-school movie sense) who comes to terms with her identity, who owns it, and in doing so, completely robs the label of its power. In fact, by the end of the movie, you’ll be proudly proclaiming your own DUFFness.
There are ingredients from a lot of other teen movies, mostly Hughesian, teeming throughout The DUFF. There’s the Mean Girls, represented by Bella Thorne’s character, who make Bianca’s life a living hell. There’s a nod toward the Breakfast Club category of high school students (though the movie seems to acknowledge that the “geeks” have taken over high school, and geeks can be either dorky or gorgeous). Then, of course, there’s an iteration of My Fair Lady here, and you can pick any high school movie with an Eliza Doolittle in it to compare it against, but I think that The DUFF is closest in a thematic sense to Patrick Dempsey’s Can’t Buy Me Love.
In Can’t Buy Me Love, the dorky guy (Dempsey) paid a popular girl to make him popular by teaching him how to dress, and how to act, and by agreeing to be his girlfriend and allow her popularity rub off on him. In the end, the woman that tried to make-over Dempsey’s character so that he could get a popular girl to go to prom with him ends up falling in love with him for who he is underneath. (That “woman,” by the way, is Amanda Peterson, and I miss her).
In the DUFF, Bianca swaps chemistry notes with a popular jock, Wesley (Robbie Amell), in exchange for advice on how to shed her DUFF label. The interesting subversion here, however, is that Wesley is not interested at all in changing her; he only endeavors to make her feel more confident about herself and who she is, and ultimately, it’s that confidence that makes her attractive to him. She also realizes in the process that there’s more layers to Wesley than just being a great athlete. He’s complicated. Ultimately, it’s a movie about discovering what lies underneath the label, whether it be “DUFF” or “jock” or “geek” or “goth.”
Beyond the empowering thematic messages of The DUFF, it’s also very funny, and the chemistry between Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell is goddamn electric. All due respect to the more popular Amell, Arrow’s Stephen, but Robbie apparently got all the charisma in that family. He was also clearly designed in a lab to turn straight men gay, so the Christian Coalition may want to nip that one in the bud. He’s intoxicating.
I didn’t expect much from The DUFF, and what little I did expect was to be repulsed by the idea that any movie would consider Mae Whitman ugly and fat. However, I was incredibly and pleasantly surprised by the film. It’s not doing gangbusters at the box-office, but teen movies destined for cult status rarely do. It will eventually find its audience, and when it does, it’s going to be a touchstone for an entire decade of teenagers. They’ll be lucky to have The DUFF as its representative.
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