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.