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‘The Duff’ Film Adaptation Plays With Perceptions of Beauty

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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