×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Duff’

Mae Whitman plays the Designated Ugly Fat Friend in this witty, sensitive modern update of 'Pygmalion.'

With:
Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca Santos, Skyler Samuels, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney, Romany Malco, Christopher Wylde, Rebecca Weil.

A smart, snappy “Pygmalion” for the millennial age, “The Duff” gives a modernized makeover to a classical scenario involving an outcast who tries to fit in with the help of a good-looking, popular mentor. The ugly duckling in this case is Bianca (“Arrested Development’s” Mae Whitman), a high-school senior who’s initially defined by her denim overalls, penchant for burping, and extremely attractive and sought-after BFFs, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos). Oblivious to the fact that she’s the most ignored member of her friendship threesome, Bianca finds her world upended when her lifelong neighbor, quarterback Wes (Robbie Amell), bluntly informs her that she’s a “Duff” – the Designated Ugly Fat Friend who functions as the gatekeeper for those interested in finding out about, or getting closer to, her more desirable comrades. Thus an identity crisis is born, one that director Ari Sandel and writer Josh A. Cagan (working from Kody Keplinger’s novel) handle with such shrewd wit and sensitivity that it’s hard not to see “The Duff” becoming an instant teen classic.

Faced with being a “Duff” — a term that, according to Wes, doesn’t literally refer to looks or weight, but functions as more of a catch-all phrase for dorky third wheels — Bianca sets out to rectify her situation by alienating Jess and Casey and enlisting Wes to renovate her life in exchange for science-class tutoring. This leads to an amusing montage of trying on outfits (and ridiculous dancing) that’s surreptitiously videotaped by the cohort of Wes’ nasty ex-girlfriend, Madison (Bella Thorne), and posted online, where it goes viral and turns Bianca into a school-wide laughing stock. If that weren’t mortifying enough, Bianca’s caught-on-camera hijinks also expose her feelings for earnest guitar-playing Toby (Nick Eversman), resulting in further embarrassment and, consequently, additional motivation to transcend her lowly social status.

Given that geekiness rules contemporary pop culture, it’s hard to imagine a girl like Bianca — who name-drops Vincent Price and decorates her bedroom with posters for Lucio Fulci’s “Zombi 2” and William Lustig’s “Maniac” — as the epitome of loserdom, though in a star-making turn, Whitman sells both the weird quirkiness that sets Bianca apart from her peers, and the endearing charm lurking beneath her unkempt flannel-pajamas exterior. Whitman deftly evokes the way in which bedrock self-confidence can be shaken by peer-group ridicule, and “The Duff” benefits immensely from her ability to convey that Bianca’s dilemma isn’t one about figuring out how to fix personal failings, but how to embrace who she is while still branching out in order to become an even better version of her true self.

Bianca’s story is populated by familiar archetypes (the thoughtful, dim-witted jock; the catty bully; the understanding sidekicks), yet director Sandel’s supporting players are routinely funnier than their stock parts have any right to be, with Amell, in particular, bringing a welcome measure of good-natured smart-assery as Bianca’s unlikely friend and — for anyone who’s seen one of these films, not-so-unlikely — secret love interest. Even in perfunctory role-model roles that mainly require them to act supportive or function as the butt of adults-are-so-out-of-touch jokes, Allison Janney and Ken Jeong elicit consistent laughs as, respectively, Bianca’s mom and journalism teacher, the latter of whom assigns Bianca to cover the Homecoming dance, where the film’s fairy-tale narrative trajectory inevitably leads.

“The Duff’s” trump card, however, is the way in which it not only incorporates today’s now-ubiquitous technology and social media into the action, but casts it as symptomatic of the problems plaguing Bianca. Sandel drenches his screen in texting and Twitter-related visual graphics that highlight how cell phones and the Internet now facilitate, if not outright dominate, teen social interaction. Moreover, from title cards that introduce each character, to a long tracking shot around a school courtyard full of kids looking down at their digital devices, the film recognizes that hashtags, Instagram labels and the like are both a liberating tool for kids to define themselves, and a constricting, limiting means of identity construction. Canny and funny in equal measure, it’s a film that embraces technology — just like it does its protagonist — on its own perfectly imperfect terms.

Film Review: 'The Duff'

Reviewed at Bow Tie Cinemas Landmark 9, Stamford, Conn., Feb. 20, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 100 MIN.

Production: A CBS Films release of a Wonderland Sound and Vision/Vast Entertainment production. Produced by McG, Mary Viola, Susan Cartsonis. Executive producers, Lane Shefter Bishop, Steven Bellow, Ted Gidlow.

Crew: Directed by Ari Sandel. Screenplay, Josh A. Cagan, based on the novel by Kody Keplinger. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), David Hennings; editor, Wendy Greene Bricmont; music, Dominic Lewis; production designer, Aaron Osborne; art director, Erin Cochran; set decorator, Nicole LeBlanc; costume designer, Eric Daman; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editor, Allan Zeleski; re-recording mixer, Robert Fernandez; visual effects supervisor, John Kilshaw; visual effects, & Co.; stunt coordinator, Wade Allen; assistant director, Jason Blumenfeld; second unit director, Tracey Poirier; casting, Angela Demo, Barbara J. McCarthy.

With: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Bianca Santos, Skyler Samuels, Nick Eversman, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney, Romany Malco, Christopher Wylde, Rebecca Weil.

More Film

  • Zachary LeviMTV Movie & TV Awards,

    MTV Movie & TV Awards Winners: The Complete List

    The MTV Movie & TV Awards are returning to television Monday, with host Zachary Levi and a number of pop culture favorites. Dominating this year’s nominations are front runners “Avengers: Endgame” and “Game of Thrones” with four nominations apiece, as well as the Oscar-nominated documentary “RBG,” which scored another four nods. This year’s show also [...]

  • Olivia Wilde Jon Ham Richard Jewell

    Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm Join Clint Eastwood's 'Richard Jewell' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm have joined the cast of Clint Eastwood’s already star-studded drama “Richard Jewell.” Paul Walter Hauser is set to star as the titular Jewell in Warner Bros.’ pic alongside Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s attorney and Kathy Bates as Jewell’s mother. The drama is based on Marie Brenner’s article in Vanity Fair [...]

  • Where the Wind Blows

    Hong Kong's 'Where the Wind Blows' Sidesteps Protests For China Promo

    Hong Kong film director Philip Yung and his cast were in Shanghai on Monday to promote their upcoming film “Where the Wind Blows.” They revealed new details while cautiously sidestepping — for the most part — the awkward issue of last week’s massive civil protests in Hong Kong against a controversial bill that would have [...]

  • Awkwafina Oscars 2019

    Awkwafina, Paul Rudd, Olivia Wilde Among Maui Film Festival Honorees

    Held in beautiful Wailea, Hawaii, the 2019 Maui Film Festival honored Awkwafina, Paul Rudd, Olivia Wilde, Gina Rodriguez, Maya Erskine and Joe Manganiello with awards at this year’s festival running June 12-16. In addition to screening films and hosting several food and culture events, the film fest gave out awards to the actors for their [...]

  • Dee Rees

    Dee Rees Directing 'Kyd's Exquisite Follies' Movie Musical

    “Mudbound” director Dee Rees will direct independent movie musical fantasy “The Kyd’s Exquisite Follies” from her own script. “The Kyd’s Exquisite Follies” will be produced by Cassian Elwes, one of the “Mudbound” producers. Santigold is set to compose the music, with Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic creating the film’s visual effects. Endeavor Content is repping the [...]

  • The Paradise

    Shanghai Film Review: 'The Paradise'

    Although gritty dramas about the hell of drug addiction are seldom in short supply in the low-budget independent sphere, it’s hard to imagine even the most uncompromising U.S. film committing quite as tenaciously to the idea of the bleak futility and probable failure of rehabilitation as Shih Han Liao’s compelling downer “The Paradise” (title ironic). [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content