There are, to be sure, the usual tropes of high school angst and triumph to be found in THE DUFF, based on the book by Kody Keplinger, but this is a film distinguished by sprightly, intelligent writing, and outstanding performances that are not just funny, but also perceptive and nuanced. Except for the high school beauty/Queen B, who should have been written and/or performed with just a soup̜çon more of the insecurity of a girl who knows all she has is her looks. Never mind. Mae Whitman as the eponymous character could have carried the film on her own, but fortunately, she doesn’t have to.
Duff, for those who don’t know, is Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a generic term for the least attractive member of any social group, actual weight or looks notwithstanding, and it’s a term that Bianca (Whitman), who has entered her senior year of high school, will learn in a startlingly offhand way from the worst possible person. That would be Wes (Robbie Arnell), the boy next door who went from childhood pal to the arrogance that comes of being the captain of the football team and Alpha Male of their school. It will, of course, change her perspective on everything that she’s heretofore taken for granted, delivering a death blow to her spirit and turning on friends, fashion-designer Jess and marital arts maven Casey (Skyler Samuels and Bianca A. Santos), the two beauties that have been her best friends since grade school. It’s also the worst possible time, in this month before homecoming, with her dreams of taking her crush, the soulful songster with the sweeping bangs Toby (Nick Eversman), to the traditional homecoming festivities.
Suffering an identity crisis fueled by hormones and the insecurities that adolescents are heir to, she vows to turn her life around. Fortunately, she’s a brain, and Wes, alas, is not. When he’s threatened with being cut from the football team, Bianca strikes a deal with him: she will tutor him to academic excellence, and he will, with further brutal honesty, guide her out of Duffdom and into the arms of the boy of her dreams.
And so runs the plot of more young adult stories than any of us have the time to count. Instead of running that familiar treadmill, though, DUFF subtly undermines its idioms by eschewing caricatures and satirizing the all-too familiar scenarios. Bianca’s mother (the brilliant Allison Janney) may spout the self-help mantras she teaches after surviving a devastating divorce to her confused daughter, but it’s not because she doesn’t care, it’s because she’s dealing with her own issues, that, like Bianca, she isn’t seeing clearly. Bianca’s best friends are beautiful, but not vapid, each evincing talents beyond being able to coordinate accessories and having real loyalty. Even Wes, the devastatingly handsome jock, twerker of pecs, and younger version of Tom Cruise, is more than just his man-whore reputation. There is a nobility in the way he throws himself into helping Bianca with Toby, starting with her inability to say more than three words to him. His advice is more than just a makeover, it’s about improving both her posture and her self-confidence. Is it too obvious to say that the chemistry involved with everyone concerned is more than just the class Wes is trying to pass? Or that Bianca’s trouble having real conversations with her Mom is symptomatic of the larger issues facing both of them, and about which THE DUFF will concern itself.
Does it get a little preachy? Sure. But, and this is key, Bianca’s transformation doesn’t change who she is: a quirky, smart, with a devastatingly ironic sense wit. Post-makeover, she looks the same, with just a dab of mascara applied for effect, not statement, and a scooch of lipstick. The message is clear. She’s fine the way she’s always been, surviving cyber-bullying and realizing that she just needs to stop wallowing in her insecurities by dressing like a schlub.
It’s a plum role of any young actress, and Whitman, ferociously condescending, uber-religious Ann Veal from Arrested Development, runs with it. She is lovely, but not plastic, with a superb sense of comedy, and a range from righteous indignation to ironic detachment to vulnerable heartbreak is sublime. She’s an actress that owns her palpable intelligence with gusto, and brandishing her flaws to make us realize how laughably unimportant they are. It makes you feel a little sorry for Bella Thorne, stuck with the prom queen part that leaves her little to do but purse her pouty lips and roll her eyes. At least we have Ken Jeong and Romany Malco, the faculty adviser and school principal respectively, who riff at will over the younger generation like a Greek chorus of adult angst.
THE DUFF doesn’t play into the traps of championing an air-brushed, impossible standard of female beauty. Its take is as non-conformist as that of its heroine,making it a refreshing take on high school that doesn’t talk down to its target audience, or reconfirm their worst fears about being ostracized for taking on the world on their own terms. Rather it charms with its whimsy, and enlightens with its smarts.