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Ah, yes. The high school romantic comedy. Or, the teen movie. While there are few that occasionally manage to diverge from the norm, most tend to be as formulaic as they come. The DUFF is no exception. You would not need to go far to guess what this movie would be about: a girl who goes from being a DUFF to being a bombshell. It’s the classic zero to hero story set against the backdrop of high school angst and a social media driven culture.
Bianca (Mae Whitman) is one of a trifecta, which include her two best friends Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skylar Samuels). The three are always together, but the kicker is that Bianca essentially goes unnoticed by everyone. This is a fact that she is unaware of until a childhood friend and next-door neighbor Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), who happens to be the captain of the football team and resident ladies man reveals to her that of her group of close friends, she is the DUFF, or the Designated Ugly Fat Friend.
As cruel as it seems to tell someone, rather frankly, that they play second fiddle to their more popular, even more desirable group of friends, it actually serves as a bit of a wakeup call for Bianca. She begins to see the school and people around her differently, noticing other DUFFs within other cliques around school, like Neo understanding what the Matrix is. With this new understanding of her place in the space she occupies in school, she seeks help from her Morpheus Wesley, in the hopes of un-DUFFing herself to impress a boy she’s interested in. In exchange for his services, she agrees to help him pass a science exam, which is necessary if he is to keep his coveted scholarship.
As mentioned earlier, this film is quite predictable. You understand very quickly who all the types are. You know Bianca will transition from the ugly duckling to the beautiful swan. You know the ‘mean girl’ antagonist will get her comeuppance. You know the boy she likes, who actually seems like a good guy, will drop the ball somehow and you know that the last person she expected to fall for… Well, you get the idea. That said, this film does manage to present some interesting spices that manage to intrigue and engage.
Chief among those spices is the relationship between Bianca and Wesley. Here is where the movie shines brightest. The pair feels the most natural of all the players in this picture; their chemistry is obvious. Robbie Arnell was charming as the hunky jock who attempts to get Bianca to come out of her shell, but Mae Whitman deserves some serious props here. The manner in which she goes all out and really lets loose makes her character that much more endearing, which is really a testament to Whitman and her boldness as an actor. It is not really a surprise for anyone who has seen her in anything, she certainly knows what she’s doing.
The film is very self aware and expresses its themes in a very tongue-in-cheek manner. It does a good job of depicting the more current landscape of high school, particularly in the manner of cyber-bullying, how cruel certain students can be and how the smallest things can be the biggest things for hormonal teens. The story here is tried and true, the package familiar. Though there manages to be some nice inversions of some of the ingredients we expect (Ken Jeong as the caring teacher being a good example), the movie does not dare to go as far or to be as bold as Bianca. It is she who manages to make this flick an entertaining one because you care about her and want her to be happy. At the end of the day, DUFF or not, that counts for something.