“THE DUFF” // CARVES OUT A NICHE FOR ITSELF

The captivating “Pygmalion” comedy “The DUFF” revitalizes the standard-issue, romantic, high school, makeover movie. No, I haven’t read Kentucky-native Kody Keplinger’s 2010 novel that she wrote while she attended high school. Nevertheless, freshman director Ari Sandel and “Bandslam” scenarist Josh A. Cagan appear to have infused their adaptation of Keplinger’s yarn with the wit, charm, and sophistication reminiscent of classics such as John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” (1985) and Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (1995). Most makeover comedies are so lame they are mediocre. Prime examples include 1987’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and 1999’s “She’s All That.” Moreover, the superlative makeover movie parody “Not Another Teen Movie” (2001) subjected the genre to devastating ridicule. Although “The DUFF” appropriates most of the usual conventions and clichés, the characters emerge as more interesting, the predicaments more stimulating, and the humor more imaginative. While our sympathetic but iconoclastic senior class heroine is negotiating the complex social order maze, “The DUFF” compounds her problems, pitting her against cyber-bullies who exploit the social media technology to insult, humiliate, and destroy her because she represents a threat. No, this frivolous, PG-13 rated, frolic doesn’t plumb the appalling depths of “Disconnect” (2012) where callous cyber bullies drove a sensitive teen to commit suicide. Comparatively, our heroine packs considerably more pluck than the unfortunate “Disconnect” protagonist, and she survives everything with which her ruthless adversaries assault her.
Like most teen movies in a high school setting, this clever comedy categorizes its characters by archetypes. “The DUFF” assembles the traditional gallery of crude egotistical jocks, bitchy babe princesses, and oblivious adults–whether they are administrators, instructors, or parents. Sandel and Cagan orchestrate the action around the most prominent high school happening: prom. Of course, graduation constitutes the other landmark event, but prom overshadows graduation. Primarily, prom generates far greater opportunities for dramatic conflict than congregations in caps and gowns. As in most high school sagas, teenagers are searching desperately for their place in the social pecking order. While their parents and peers are manipulating them like marionettes from behind the scenes, these struggling teens have to muster the nerve to assert themselves as individuals and break free of those fetters. All makeover movies, whether good or bad, are ranked by how challenging the obstacle course is, and if the teens can triumph. Naturally, our resourceful heroine achieves her goal, but she has to sidestep the slings and arrows of her treacherous enemies along the way.
The acronym DUFF that doubles as the title for Sandel’s first film stands for ‘designated ugly fat friend.’ If for no other reason, “The DUFF” has carved a niche out for itself in teen makeover movie history because it originated this term. Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) doesn’t live to loiter in the limelight. An honor roll scholar, she writes for the campus newspaper, dresses as if she were homeless, and watches cult horror chillers like Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie.” Bianca’s two best friends are aspiring fashion designer Jess (Skyler Samuels of “Furry Vengeance”) and gorgeous but geeky Internet nerd Casey (Bianca A. Santos of “Ouija”), who can do anything with a computer. Not surprisingly, these two dolls are drop-dead gorgeous, while our ugly duckling heroine dresses beneath their status. Bianca’s life-long, next door neighbor is football team captain Wesley (Robbie Amell of TV’s “The Tomorrow People”) who dreams about dating Jess. He approaches Bianca one day to recruit her as his go-between. At this point in her high school career, Bianca has never heard the term DUFF. Moreover, she cringes with surprise and horror at being pigeonholed into such an unflattering category. Wesley explains that DUFFs exist everywhere. At lunch, he points out examples of both guys and girls at lunch taking refuge from the violence.
No sooner has Bianca learned about her deplorable status than she resolves not only to alter her lifestyle but also eliminate her friends. Actually, neither Jess nor Casey has ever taken advantage of Bianca as a DUFF. Nevertheless, our hot-headed heroine doesn’t see things objectively enough at the moment. Meantime, resident ‘mean girl’ drama queen Madison (Bella Thorne of “Blended”), who has had an on-again, off-again relationship with Wesley, has decided to renew their romance. Things come to a boil when Wesley’s poor chemistry grades jeopardize his status as captain of the high school football team. Simultaneously, Bianca marvels at the ease with which Wesley navigates the social order. Bianca cuts a deal with Wesley. She will tutor Wesley in chemistry, if he will show her how to attract the attention of her dream guy. Naturally, green-eyed Madison has kept an eye on Wesley and Bianca from afar, and she plots Bianca’s demise if she doesn’t leave her Wesley alone. Madison’s best friend shoots a reality video journal of Madison’s life, and Madison assigns her to maintain stealth surveillance on Wesley and Bianca. Ironically, Bianca wasn’t trying to seduce Wesley. Instead, Bianca has had a crush on a laid-back, acoustical guitarist, Toby (Nick Eversman of “Wild”), but she cannot utter more than two words when they encounter each other on campus.
Indeed, “The DUFF” is predictable, particularly if you’ve seen as many teen makeover movies as I have, but top-notch casting, charismatic characters, and suspenseful situations elevate this comedy above the standard stuff. Mae Whitman reminded me of the ultimate 1990’s DUFF character: Janeane Garofalo, who co-starred with Uma Thurman in “The Truth About Cats and Dogs.” Whitman’s cult film character is also reminiscent of Ellen Page from “Juno.” Bianca provides a running, voice-over narration, enlivened with commentary similar to Emma Stone’s comments in “Easy A.” Happily, Whitman and co-star Robbie Amell generate showers of sparks, and they look like they enjoyed sharing their scenes as teacher and student. The funniest scene depicts Bianca trying on apparel and making out with a mannequin that resembles her dream date Toby. Altogether, “The DUFF qualifies as an easy-B.

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