If you’re still in high school, “The DUFF” may help you feel like you just might survive.
If you’ve graduated high school, “The DUFF” will make you glad you never, ever have to go back.
“The DUFF” is the latest in a longstanding tradition of movies built on that awful, glorious adolescent rite of passage, and it feels like a pretty astute portrait of the high school experience in 2015. The film is rife with references to social media, cyber bullying and even popular culture’s mainstreaming of Internet pornography.
All things considered, it’s kind of a dark portrait.
The film’s title refers to a derogatory acronym assigned to the weak link of any social group: The Designated Ugly Fat Friend. The “DUFF” in question is Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school student achieving top marks in class but flunking her social life. Her best friends are Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos), a pair of borderline runway models who command all the attention from the boys.
Bianca likes the boys, too, and one in particular: Toby (Nick Eversman). Growing weary of taking the social back seat, Bianca has a sobering encounter with the literal boy next door, Wesley (Robbie Amell). Wesley is the dashing high school football star who struggles in school and is just insensitive enough to tell Bianca what no one else will: she’s a DUFF.
What follows is a 2015 update of another longheld high school movie tradition: the deal. Character A makes a bargain with Character B that has something to do with dating, social status or better grades. In this case, Bianca offers to help Wesley with his chemistry homework if he agrees to coach her into Toby’s arms.
There are complications, naturally. Wesley’s ex-girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne) rules the school with an iron diva fist, and she’s none too happy to see him spending time with a DUFF like Bianca. Madison plays the role of the villain, but even she has to take a back seat to the adolescent insecurity of the characters themselves. In “The DUFF,” everyone is their own worst enemy, and that’s kind of the point.
There’s a good message buried in all of this, even if it feels like a rehash of “Mean Girls,” “She’s All That” or any number of high school films from the last four decades. Unfortunately, the thing that sets it apart — aside from its frank sexuality and vulgarity — are all of the tech and media references that will firmly implant “The DUFF” in 2015 for years to come.
You sense director Ari Sandel straining at originality. But in spite of its good heart, the film lands squarely in the derivative mire.
Part of the problem could be Whitman, who tries her hardest to play the sympathetic “overlooked girl with so much more to offer than you realize” but lacks the charisma of “Mean Girls”-era Lindsey Lohan. Her character feels like a strange cousin to Ann, Michael Cera’s punch line of a girlfriend that Whitman played in TV’s “Arrested Development.” And though she has her moments, their sum total only leaves the glass half full.
Still, she does a better job than her cast mates, who don’t get much to do outside of their two-dimensional character boxes. Even poor Ken Jeong — who plays Bianca’s journalism teacher Mr. Arthur — feels like a watered-down version of his diabolical Senior Chang character from TV’s “Community.”
There are times during “The DUFF” where you sense some potential. But by the time the third act delivers its predictable finale, seasoned audiences are left to reminisce about the movies that did it all better. The only audience that can really enjoy this movie might be the one walking the halls of high school this very minute.
“The DUFF” is rated PG-13 for consistent vulgarity and sexual dialogue, some mild violence and profanity (including a single use of the F-word).
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.