[Screen It]

"THE DUFF"
(2015) (Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: Upon learning that she's apparently a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), a high school senior strikes a deal with the football captain to transform her into the kind of girl who might attract her dreamy crush.
PLOT:
Bianca (MAE WHITMAN) is a high school senior who lives with her single, motivational speaker mom, Dottie (ALLISON JANNEY); has two best friends, Jess (SKYLER SAMUELS) and Casey (BIANCA A. SANTOS); and is the favorite student of journalism teacher Mr. Arthur (KEN JEONG). When her next door neighbor and current high school football team captain, Wesley (ROBBIE AMELL), informs her that she's the DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) to Jess and Casey, however, Bianca's world is shaken. Despite Wesley's crass generalization, Bianca believes it. Not only does she then un-friend her friends, but she also strikes a deal with Wesley. She'll help him improve his grades so that his college scholarship isn't in jeopardy while he'll help transform her into the kind of girl who could draw the interest of her dream crush and fellow student, Toby (NICK EVERSMAN).

But Bianca must contend with Wesley's on-again, off-again girlfriend, Madison (BELLA THORNE), who looks down on Bianca but nevertheless is jealous of the time she's spending with Wesley. Accordingly, she gets her friend, Caitlyn (REBECCA WEIL), to capture embarrassing video footage of Bianca and then post that online. As she must contend with that affecting her chances with Toby, and Mr. Arthur assigning her to write a story on the Homecoming dance, Bianca doesn't realize that Wesley might be falling for her.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
In the world of marketing and sales, companies and stores deploy all sorts of tactics they hope will manipulate consumers into buying their goods. That ranges from advertising designed to elicit certain emotional responses to the name of said products and even their placement on store shelves (yes, there's an actual science to that).

One tactic that some sales teams use is the three-tiered pricing system. There's the entry level version of whatever the product might be, the middle of the road one, and the "all the bells and whistles" option with the accompanying premium price tag. The theory is the latter will seem too expensive, while the former will feel cheap or somehow below the customer. And in true Goldilocks and the Three Bears fashion, the middle offering will feel just right, which is exactly what the vendor wanted in the first place.

I have no idea if humans use such a three-pronged approach, but there's no denying that all of us, at one time or another, have probably manipulated others into getting what we want. That could be a job, a significant other or what have you, but it's certainly not foreign to the human experience.

That comes into play in "The DUFF," a high school comedy where our frumpy protagonist (Mae Whitman) learns from her thorn in her side lifelong next door neighbor (Robbie Amell) that she's the titular subject employed by her two best friends (Skyler Samuels and Bianca A. Santos) to make them look better.

Despite otherwise seeming like a quite bright young woman, she believes that designation of being their Designated Ugly Fat Friend and takes it to heart. All of which results in her de-friending those two and then making a deal with the next door neighbor to help him improve his grades and thus keep his college scholarship if he shows her how to escape her DUFF-dom and become the sort of alluring young woman who could date the high school boy of her dreams (Nick Eversman).

That's the premise of this film that's directed by Ari Sandel from Josh A. Cagan's screenplay adaptation of Kody Keplinger's book of the same name. I haven't read the source work and thus can't attest to this version's loyalty to what occurs on the page. But I can say that while the resultant work has its charms, it occasionally feels a bit forced, plays off many standard clichés revolving around teens in Hollywood movies, and ultimately comes off like a weaker retread of the cultural lightning in a bottle that "Juno" captured a few years back.

My biggest complaint is that I just didn't buy into the premise -- especially as modified by Wesley in explaining to Bianca that not all DUFFs are fat or ugly, and that some are even dudes -- or Whitman's portrayal of the character and her response to said social designation.

While some may have complained that Ellen Page's character felt artificial in "Juno" and the dialogue too fabricated, I found it entertaining, especially considering that protagonist's plight. Here, and notwithstanding teen girl "my life is over" drama that many a parent must endure, the stakes (comedic or dramatic) are not as high, and Whitman simply appears to be playing down her looks in order to have her obligatory fashion and behavioral makeover.

Yes, to no one's surprise, there's a trying on clothes montage, a lot of "Mean Girls" material (represented by Bella Thorne in a one-dimensional part), and the usual can't see the tree for the forest sort of myopia in terms of identifying who's the best dating prospect (I'll give you one guess about who ends up with whom by the time the end credits roll).

Beyond such predictability, I felt all involved were trying too hard to make the offering feel edgy and snarky. While the material has elements of both qualities, we've seen such an approach handled with more aplomb in past pics that also fall into this teen high school experience sub-genre.

That said, the chemistry between Whitman and Amell is decent enough to overcome some of those issues and rough spots. But it would have been nice had the rest of the characters been given more depth above and beyond their uninteresting genre stereotypes.

In the end, "The DUFF" might end up serving its titular purpose if placed next to the likes of "Juno" or "Mean Girls," especially in making them appear even better than they already are. This offering rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed February 17, 2015 / Posted February 20, 2015


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