‘The DUFF’ lives up to its label
Kids can be mean, and Hollywood is thankful for it. Without bullies and nerds, studios would have nothing to offer the PG-13 crowd except for superheroes and terminal illness. Unfortunately, “The DUFF” doesn’t rise to the level of genre standouts such as “Carrie,” “Heathers,” and “Mean Girls.” In fact, if recent film history were a high school cafeteria, “The DUFF” would probably be sharing a table with such wannabes as “Revenge of the Nerds,” “Drillbit Taylor,” and Adam Sandler.
The title is an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” referring to the unfortunates who make the people they hang out with look better. Here the DUFF is Bianca (Mae Whitman, known to many as Amber Holt on TV’s “Parenthood”) and it comes as a surprise to her when someone indiscreetly tells her, because she is neither fat nor ugly and she doesn’t want to be designated as anything. As she points out in her opening voiceover, she hates labels.
Needless to say, such a film can’t operate without labels, or in this case hashtags – for example, Bianca’s friend Casey (Bianca Santos) is #thetoughone (as noted by the film’s overly cute graphics) because she’s athletic, sticks up for her friends, and doesn’t take guff from anyone. As for Bianca, with her good grades, taste for horror movies, dry wit, and a wardrobe featuring flannel shirts and bib overalls, she falls in somewhere between #weirdo and #dork. At times, given Whitman’s spunky performance (an unlikely combination of Ellen Page and Melissa McCarthy), she sometimes resembles an actual character.
But when she makes the shocking discovery that others label her a DUFF, Bianca rebels, striking out inappropriately at Casey and her other BFF, Jess (Skyler Samuels), going so far as to unfriend them on Facebook and unfollow them on Twitter (this film exemplifies the ill effect social media is having on movies). Fumbling for a non-DUFF identity, she turns to her former childhood friend and current school stud Wesley (Robbie Amell), a.k.a. #manwhore, for a makeover. In the process she angers Wesley’s prom queen ex-girlfriend Madison (Bella Thorne), who loves to label people and is a master of that suicide-inducing, side-splitting comedy favorite, cyber bullying.
The scenes between Whitman and Santos stir with an unfulfilled frisson and a frothy erotic potential but then the characters settle again into their hashtags, smothered by bad writing, Sandel’s sleepwalking direction, and a nonstop, inane soundtrack. Pros like Ken Jeong, Chris Wylde, and Allison Janney make the most of it (especially in the wacky outtakes at the end), but in the end we learn that everyone is a DUFF for someone. Even this movie: a Derivative Unimaginative Forgettable Film.