Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 110 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. As a teen movie, it’s mostly obsessed with sex: teens make out, talk about different ways of kissing, are implied to be having sex, talk about sex, make jokes about sex, mime having sex with a mannequin, draw a picture of male genitalia, and talk about pornographic films. Also some cursing, cyberbullying, an adult character who is often drinking, and some teens punching each other.
‘The DUFF’ is an incoherent mix of messages, a movie about loving yourself for who you are but also changing yourself to be more like others. For a movie about the power of a makeover, ‘The DUFF’ could have used one.
By Roxana Hadadi
Teen movies, even the most beloved, can be thematically problematic. “The Breakfast Club” is a very nice movie about unlikely friendships between teens of different social groups, but in it, the antisocial girl played by Ally Sheedy can’t just be weird and unkempt; she has to brush her hair and put lipstick on before kissing Emilio Estevez. More recently, Emma Stone became a star after “Easy A,” the adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” in which her high school character pretends to be having sex with boys to gain them respect; the movie was enjoyable and had a great turn from Stone, but it had strange gender dynamics, too. And so we land at “The DUFF,” a movie firmly aimed at teenagers of right now (in a few years, won’t all the apps namedropped be obsolete?) that never really thinks itself through.
In it, there’s a “weird” girl who by the end of the movie is supposed to be proud of who she is … but she still dresses more sexually, busts out some cleavage, and tries to show up the other girls who doubted her. There’s also a jock character who shows how deep he is by citing a love of “Project Runway,” and there’s a typically vapid beautiful girl who yearns to be on a reality show and makes cyberbullying her favorite hobby. If that sounds to you like “The DUFF” is just a mish-mash of elements from John Hughes movies like the aforementioned “The Breakfast Club” as well as “Pretty in Pink,” and also the classic black comedy “Heathers,” and also Tina Fey’s masterpiece “Mean Girls,” you’d be right! “The DUFF” has barely any original ideas of its own, and it’s clear how confused the film is in its conclusion. Be yourself—or change yourself to be totally someone else! Whichever is cool! As long as you get a boyfriend! What wishy-washy indecision.
The film focuses on Bianca (Mae Whitman, of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), a teenage girl confident in her lifelong best friendships with Casey (Bianca Santos, of “Ouija”) and Jess (Skyler Samuels, of “Furry Vengeance”). Sure, Bianca prefers flannel and overalls and she’s shorter and (slightly) heavier than her tall, stick-thin, and skimpily dressed friends, but they’re all best buds! Sure, she prefers classic horror films and is obsessed with zombies, and Casey and Jess never seem to know or care about anything she’s talking about, but that doesn’t mean they’re not super-close! Right?
Wrong, informs Wesley (Robbie Amell, of “Struck by Lightning”), Bianca’s football-playing next-door neighbor. For years, Casey and Skyler have been using Bianca as a “DUFF,” or “designated ugly fat friend,” so they can get guys. Boys are more comfortable approaching Bianca, befriending her and gaining her trust, and then she operates as a “gateway” to her hotter friends. No matter that Bianca isn’t actually ugly or fat (it’s all “relative,” Wesley says), but the principle is what’s abhorrent.
Shocked and disgusted by her friends, Bianca ditches them, and strikes a deal with Wesley instead: She’ll tutor him in chemistry so he doesn’t fail and lose his college football scholarship, and he can teach her how to lose her “DUFF” designation. And will the mysterious lifelong chemistry between them turns into something else? Who knows! (No, you know. You absolutely know.)
There’s nothing wrong with a good self-exploration story, especially for teenagers; practically nothing about your identity is truly fixed when you’re that young, and a movie encouraging adolescents to dig deeper into their interests and personalities isn’t a bad thing. On the flip side, though, it feels fundamentally disingenuous for “The DUFF” to align itself with Bianca against her fake friends and the popular-girl bully Madison (Bella Thorne, of “Alexander the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) and then still have her change herself to prove her worth to them. Look, her oversized flannel shirt can be transformed into a tight, cleavage-showing dress! Look, she can receive the attention of hunky athletes when she undergoes that transformation! Somewhat like the ’90s teen film “She’s All That,” “The DUFF” wants to have it both ways, to be sympathetic toward outsiders but also encourage them to be more like everyone else. It’s an untenable mix.
But for all the ways “The DUFF” is annoying (so much namedropping of phone apps, Instagram, tumblr, and Vine; unnecessary narration from Bianca’s character; an over-reliance on cellphone cameras for dramatic tension; zero real friendship evident between Bianca and her friends in the first place; a terrible makeover sequence including shopping for bras), at least it has Whitman. She’s always been the somewhat snarky-but-wounded character in the ensembles of good films (like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”), and here she finally gets a leading opportunity; she’s emotive, sarcastic, charming, clever, and likeable, and she and Amell have surprisingly good chemistry together, as do she and Allison Janney as her dumped, over-drinking, motivational-speaking mom (“Believe, achieve, just don’t conceive!” are some of her words of wisdom).
Nevertheless, can even Whitman sell the film’s conflicting messages? “It’s not about popularity or even getting the guy … we are all DUFFs!” she proclaims near the end of the film, but if you had been paying attention at all, you would realize the preceding film is all about her becoming more popular, getting the guy, and working to stop being a DUFF. Ultimately, then, “The DUFF” rings hollow, even if Whitman and Amell are the best things about it.
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