'The DUFF' might be this generation's 'Mean Girls'
In case you’re behind on your Urban Dictionary Word of the Day, the term “DUFF” stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” It’s a cruel label that isn’t funny; it’s horrible and promotes damaging body standards and mostly targets young women. So I was curious how a movie based on the term (and adapted from a YA novel of the same name) would tackle the issues surrounding such a label.
As it turns out, The DUFF handles “DUFF” like a champ. The film takes back the label, owning it and proclaiming that it’s awesome to be who you are, no matter what labels society, or high school, throws at you.
In the movie’s universe, being a “DUFF” is reframed as a reference to being the “approachable” person in a friend group, a point that’s articulated directly by the movie’s man male character, Wesley Rush. It’s still not a flattering moniker, but it opens the door for characters to deal with the label and its effect, to confront their insecurities (because we all have them) and ultimately, overcome them. The film take an honest look at the fact that we’re all sometimes tempted to compare ourselves with our friends. It’s normal and a really hard habit to kick, but The DUFF encourages embracing your individuality, supporting your friends (and even your enemies), and, perhaps most importantly, it illustrates how a seemingly-harmless, supposedly-“funny” nickname can send an all-around awesome person into a spiral of self-doubt. Words hurt, and The DUFF serves as a powerful reminder of that fact.
Have I mentioned, it’s incredibly fun to watch? I knew I was in for a good time from the moment the title credits rolled. The DUFF proudly displays its name in hot pink and lime green, a color combo that I can’t help but associate with high school and hilarity. It’s a sassy color combination, a color combination that says, “Hey, world, I make my own rules and have personality to spare.”
And that’s totally true of the film’s main character, Bianca, played by the straight-up excellent Mae Whitman.
Bianca is an overalls-and-flannel-loving chemistry whiz, a cult movie aficionado, and star writer on the school newspaper. She has no reason to question herself or her friendship with her so-called “hotter” friends, Jess and Casey — until resident jock/jerk/obvious love interest Wesley tells her she’s the “DUFF” of the group, undermining her friendships, her individuality and high school existence.
Plot twist: Wesley is great at the high school school social game and terrible at chemistry (the subject, not the romantic tension), so Bianca proposes a trade. He’ll tutor her on how to be “cool” and she’ll tutor him in chemistry (the subject — and also maybe the romantic tension).
The great thing about The DUFF is the honesty with which it tackles high school. It’s refreshing in a way that’s reminiscent of Mean Girls. High school and teenagedom are celebrated, but not romanticized. The DUFF takes a very frank, warts-and-all, approach to its subject matter and the young cast has pretty impeccable timing. In honor of retaking acronyms allow me to transition now into what amounts to a bloated acrostic poem for the remainder of this review.
The DUFF’s heroine follows a long tradition of teen movie nerd-to-knockout makeovers. The difference here is that Bianca is 100% at the helm of her own makeover and completely aware of why she wants to change. Also, when it comes down to it, Bianca isn’t updating her looks for a guy (even though she is interested in an aspiring artist named Toby); she’s reacting to the feeling that her best friends have betrayed her. Bianca plays an active role in her transformation, she’s keenly aware of her motives, and she isn’t afraid to speak up for herself. It’s everything you love about teen movies, done with a knowing wink,
I could have used “frank,” but I already had enough F-words for this post. The DUFF has something to say and a strong enough voice to really convey it. In the grand tradition of coming-of-age stories, it encourages you to take risks and find yourself, but it doesn’t feel inauthentic when it does. Bianca has an emotional arc and she grows and changes, but she shines most when she’s being true to herself. That’s a message worth reiterating at any age.
What I was most impressed about in The DUFF was the strong bond of Bianca, Jess and Casey’s friendship. The movie just wouldn’t have worked if Jess and Casey saw Bianca as their DUFF or were anything other than great friends to her. Luckily, they don’t and they are. Even during their friendship breakup, after Bianca cuts ties with them—hurt and convinced they were using her all these years—they still stick up for her and help clean up the shambles of her social life from behind-the-scenes, like teenage fairy godmothers. The real love story of the movie is between Bianca and her best friends.
Finally, The DUFF is just a genuinely good time. It’s funny and smart and Whitman kicks comedic butt in it. Robbie Amell is charming as Wesley and this movie showcases his personality and talent in a way that none of his previous projects have. Throw in totally brilliant supporting performances from Ken Jeong and Allison Janney and you have something worth watching. And yes, maybe even watching again.
The DUFF fills the Mean Girls-shaped hole in our hearts, and ultimately sends a message we can get behind: just be who you are, because who you are is the best.
(Images via Lionsgate.)