‘The Duff’ Film Adaptation Plays With Perceptions of Beauty

The Duff Movie
Alex Hoerner for Variety

Can a film about shallow beauty and high school popularity also be empowering for women? It can if it’s CBS Films’ comedy-drama “The Duff.”

The adaptation of the YA bestseller by then-17-year-old Kody Keplinger is due out Feb. 20. The women behind the film, producers Susan Cartsonis and Mary Viola, and CBS Films’ president Terry Press, approached the indie — budgeted at $9.5 million — with passion.

The book follows whip-smart high school senior Bianca, who sees herself as an outsider, especially compared to her friends — all pretty, popular girls — and the events that unfurl after Bianca finds out she’s “the duff” (designated ugly fat friend). “We all gravitated toward the writer’s voice — I didn’t know Kody was a teenager,” says Viola. “It didn’t talk down to teens.”

The subject matter — self-esteem centered on perceived physical beauty or lack thereof — is a hot topic, and “The Duff” deals with it frankly.

So casting was key, and tough. “We talked a lot about what kind of young woman would be ‘The Duff,’ ” says Press, adding that the young woman playing Bianca had to be accessible.

Mae Whitman (“Parenthood”) won the role, setting off a storm on social media. “Only in Hollywood would Mae Whitman be considered the Duff” was the consensus.

But that’s not the point — the characters realize that anyone can be the duff. “That’s kind of why I wanted to do this,” says Whitman.

“I wanted to shed some light on this vortex we’ve created, that no matter how you look or how you feel there’s always something that you’re not, and that’s destructive.”
And anyway, Press notes, being the Duff is all relative.

“I have a 15-year-old daughter,” says Press. “I feel it deals in a very straightforward and funny way a class system that should be detoxified. You want your daughter and son to be exposed to the message of this movie.”

Bella Thorne relished her role as the villain. “She just wants to win, and that’s all she cares about,” says Thorne.

Another trick was to cast the Duff’s friends — who, despite  being pretty and smart, also deal with the same issues of self-esteem as the Duff. Skyler Samuels and Bianca Santos have embraced the roles, as well as the message of the film.

But why not a female helmer?

“I’ve worked with Ari (Sandel) before on a teen project,” says Viola. “He does understand women …  he really got what we were going for.”
Cartsonis notes that Sandel used his sisters as his market research team. “He was sensitive and articulate about young women’s issues,” she says.

Will moms want to see this with their daughters?

“Absolutely!” they say in unison.

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  1. Kylie says:

    Was this movie created for profit or power?

  2. Lael says:

    How does this casting and this article reaffirm our expectations of what beauty standards are? This article says that the movie plays with perceptions of beauty, but looking at the image of the four women, they appear to be very conventionally beautiful. With Mae Whitman being cast as a DUFF, which literally means designated ugly fat friend, is this harmful for young girls to see and internalize? Or does the movie do a good enough job of presenting the Duff as a construct rather than a certain look?

  3. M.C. says:

    This might actually have been interesting, if they had actually cast someone who was genuinely not pretty in the role of Bianca. Instead, we get Mae Whitman, who is still somehow labeled the “DUFF” despite being conventionally attractive in every way. This is only going to alienate and discourage every teenage girl who goes to see this. The casting choices alone would have killed any interest I had, if the trailer hadn’t already made it clear that they were mangling the (amazing) book in every possible way.

  4. AC says:

    I just saw a preview for The Duff in a movie theater and I instantly had to hold back tears…. Why? I am a duff. Sure, I can assume that the main character will realize that her inner beauty is the most important thing and that changing herself to fit in won’t lead to happiness. Hell, she will probably end up with a boyfriend by the end of the film. But that doesn’t change what this movie will do to all women who haven’t felt pretty enough or thin enough to meet society’s standards. This movie gives us a name: duff. The trailer alone made me sad, self consciousness, and sick. I can’t imagine going through the seventh grade while this film is in theaters. Just think about how many girls are going to be called duff because of this movie. I just wish this movie would not come out. As a person who has struggled with body image issues for years, I invite you to look at this trailer from my perspective. It hurts.

  5. Chloe says:

    I am absolutely floored with this movie. My night is totally ruined because I watched my favorite book become this disgusting, absolutely heart breaking movie. To all the mothers out there who think that this book was inappropriate…. fuck you. This book has amazing life lessons about women’s independence and the main character loving herself and sticking to her morals. Yes there’s sex in it. But if you have a problem with your child seeing it THEN DONT LET THEM FUCKING SEE IT. it is annoying ass mothers like these that ruin every good thing because they want to “protect their children” well guess what. Sex is a common thing and life. But I’m not entirely blaming the over baring mothers here. CBS RUINED THIS BOOK. I can’t even tell you how disgusted I am by how you stripped this book of its amazing page-turning plot and turned it into this annoying unoriginal story. The trailer just shows how insecure a woman is and the lengths she would take to change her image. Congratulations CBS for turning this book into a joke. Fuck you and great job making this movie into a total piece of shit.
    Ps. The fact that Bella Thorne is in it makes the movie look even worse considering the fact that her character doesn’t even exist in the book. I hope this company loses a lot of money because of this horrible terrible movie

    • Yasmine says:

      Chloe I totally agree. The Duff has been one of my favorites. I think that people are focusing too much on the inappropriate sex and not enough on the character development and lessons that a girl could find useful in life. In the book Bianca is true to herself and doesn’t care about Wesleyan opinion about her. She’s a confident woman and not this insecure girl who want to change her social status. The book taught us that being less appealing to your friends doesn’t mean anyone will love you any less. I mean she got the self absorbed, egotistical Wesley Rush to fall in love with her for being herself. When I think of that trailer I cringe because of how pathetic it makes us girls look. And how unoriginal the plot is. There’s dozens of movies about a guy helping a girl change her image and honestly this one will just be added to the list of movies that everyone will forget after they see it. If CBS really wanted a blockbuster hit they would have stuck with the original plot and hired better actors. I’m not saying that the actors in general are bad but they just don’t seem like the right actors for these characters. But most of all I’m disappointed at Kody Keplinger. I am a huge fan of all of her books and that fact that she actually gave this company the right to this movie is just…..well exactly that, disappointing. She had an opportunity to make this movie great but honestly it’s just going to be horrible publicity for her books. This movie is just going to be as big as a disappointment as The Last Airbender was.

  6. Andie says:

    I would only see this with my daughter (at any age) if they changed 2/3 of the book. It was decently written, yes, but it was almost entirely about a no strings attached sexual affair between promiscuous teens. That isn’t the stuff of sweet mother-daughter movie nights.

    • Shannon says:

      I’ve read a review on the script and if they haven’t change it since, you don’t have worry about that. Bianca and Wesley’s relationship is vastly different in the movie.

  7. Jeff g says:

    Absolutely!” they say in unison

  8. Carrie says:

    Direction and thought of this movies seems well intentioned. main stream casting and out of touch director will sure make this a flop. Why not a female helmer? Why a single, 40-something male that has no intelligence or emphathy for the “message of the movie”. Calling BS too.

  9. I’m sure the film will be GREAT, and I’m sure he’s a GREAT director too, but I love that you asked, “WHY NOT A FEMALE HELMER?”

  10. bec215 says:

    Maybe the reason there are no comments is that all of us reading this are speechless. And I’ll be the first to call BS on the defense of the casting.

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