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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Duff

The hysterical, sweet The Duff renews our faith in teen comedies.

Review by Matt Cummings

Has recent teen programming always been this awful? In a world where Disney live-action programming makes you feel like you've entered The Dumb Zone with its horrible acting and cheesy scripts, The Duff arrives to kick all of them in their collective pants and then laugh about it all the way to the high school bathroom.

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a high school brainiac whose super-hot friends Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels) are the center of every high school boy's fantasies. Yet, Bianca's Nirvana/Seattle style makes no one turn their heads, escpecially the football team's quarterback and Bianca's longtime neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell). Through a strange twist of fate, Bianca comes face to face with the jock, learning that she has been designated as a Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), and that this phenomenon is repeated with kids all over campus. Fearing her realization will be soul-crushing, Bianca enlists Wesley to make her over into a winner so she can entice heartthrob Toby (Nick Eversman) into finally dating her.

Perhaps The Duff's greatest strength lies in casting its lead as a female who frankly doesn't have the looks of her much hotter friends. It's a bold move to cast Whitman, whose absolute charm and crassness is contagious from the moment she appears. She clearly hates the world of high school, save for her friends and the newspaper, content to see the world in pencil lines, slow motion, and Twitter handles. Credit Fastlane Producer McG for the slick imagery, as well as Director Ari Sandel for the great team of young talent he has assembled. But this is Whitman's show, and she emerges as one of the best surprises of 2015, her chemistry rubbing off on everyone here, even handling a subdued Ken Jeong as her newspaper advisor with quick wit and a sense of realness that actually eclipses his performance. Alison Janey is also made better as Bianca's mother, while Amell is simply hilarious as the meathead jock made mature by Whitman's sarcastic style.

But Duff takes a distinctly different but no less rewarding turn after Act 1. Instead of becoming a straight-up revenge/self-help teen comedy, it adds elements of cyber-bullying when school bitch Madison (Bella Thorne) posts embarrassing videos of Bianca at the mall. This gets the principal (Romany Malco) involved in wondering just how far this sort of behavior can go before the teen will snap. That sort of diversion is great because it lines up all the characters in the film against Madison, something Writer Josh Cagan has obviously planned but without devolving the arc in a bloodbath.

Not until Cagan adds another layer to the story by showing average-looking kids begin to utter "I'm a Duff!" to the screen do we come full circle with the film. This isn't a milk crate declaration about acceptance in front of a cheering crowd but a simple statement that outsiders, geeks, and even Duffs offer something for everyone. Cagan's script is warm and hilarious but mindful of the incredible pressures faced by kids today, and the world he paints around Bianca gets it absolutely right without being right on the nose. But don't let that pleasant surprise distract you from the larger, insanely funny comedy that stands front and center.

The Duff is perhaps a rare exception in teen comedies and teen films in general: it doesn't feel After-School Special or propped up by unwatchable dialogue supported by B-rate actors. Instead, it gives me hope that good, funny stories about teens are still out there waiting to be told by directors who can make them smart and fill them with great talent. The Duff succeeds in every one of these categories, making it the most quotable film of late and giving Mean Girls a run for its money.

The Duff is Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying and has a runtime of 110 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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