Robbie Amell and Mae Whitman star in "The DUFF"

Robbie Amell and Mae Whitman star in “The DUFF”

The DUFF is a 2015 high school comedy starring Mae Whitman (TV’s Parenthood, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Robbie Amell (TV’s The Flash, TV’s The Tomorrow People), and Bella Thorne (Blended, TV’s Shake It Up).  The film is the first-feature length directed one for Ari Sandel who won an Oscar in 2007 for his short film West Bank Story.

The DUFF follows Bianca (Whitman), a high school senior who is usually left in the shadows when it comes to being seen by her fellow classmates.  Despite having two best friends in Casey (Bianca A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), their attractiveness always leaves Bianca as the odd one out.  At a party one night at popular Madison’s (Thorne) house, Bianca and her neighbor Wesley (Amell) strike up a conversation about how Bianca always seems to be ignored.  Wesley explains that Bianca is her group’s DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend).  Wesley notes that there is one in every group and that you either know one, you have one, or you are one.  You don’t necessarily have to be fat to be one either.  Bianca does not take to this categorization lightly.  A couple of days later after Bianca hears Wesley has been put on suspension from the football team due to his grades, Bianca decides she will help Wesley with his grades if he helps her become a bit more noticeable.  Along the way, they experience their ups and downs particularly with some not so welcome interferences from Madison.

High school films, particularly those where the main actors’ actual age is well past the characters’. are very hit and miss.  There have been some notable exceptions over the years particularly with 2010’s Easy A which many have compared to be more in the liking of John Hughes’ films.  While The DUFF doesn’t reach quite the level of Easy A, it works well with its high school setting despite the actors’ ages not matching up (except with Thorne).  There is definitely an easy, predictable rhythm that the film holds on to but most of the time it doesn’t exaggerate itself.  Maybe this is because the story moves at a simple pace or there are plenty of easy jokes along the way that don’t classify as juvenile.

There is one aspect of the film, which is going to be a staple in these kinds of films from now, which overstays its welcome quite early.  This aspect being the pushing in one’s face of teenagers and social media.  Some of the jokes earlier on which mimic how much friendships are influenced by such sites are amusing.  However, when the clichéd older man explains what all these sites are (which the film was at least self-aware of in its silliness) or there is too much emphasis on videos going viral with view counts going all over the screen, the element has overstayed its welcome.  While I bet the cast and crew found it a unique point to the credits, there was no need to add Twitter handles along with the credits as not many teens who see this film will probably follow the handle of say some of the executive producers.

Outside of the social media area (which in all honesty is not too much of the film) the story itself is fairly decent and it’s very easy to get in these characters’ shoes.  While there is nothing groundbreaking in what is being told, the film does divulge into some areas which other high school films could easily just make a joke out of and move on to more of the “high school comedy agenda”.  It is very much like Easy A in that even if it has been seen before, it is told in away that feels like it hasn’t been repeated.  There are a couple of plot points the film presents and then just glazes over (such as Wesley’s parents possibly getting a divorce) but if all else, the film just has plain ol’ fun.

The acting here is also good by high school comedy standards.  Mae Whitman continues to show she is a very funny, yet underrated and underused actor.  Though she obviously doesn’t fit the age of Bianca, she handles her struggles with relative ease.  With the film supposedly being more of a reflection on her time in high school, there is a sense of a personal connection with her character.  Robbie Amell has some fun with the jock role as he also plays off some of the ridiculous attributes of the typecast and ends up being just as funny as his female co-star.  The chemistry the two share on-screen is also very believable which helps the film greatly as well because most of the time the two main actors themselves in such films don’t find the connection where they work off the other.  Bella Thorne is fine, though probably the most by the book performance of the cast.  Allison Janney is a fun distraction in the film as Bianca’s mother turned motivational speaker after her husband left them.

The DUFF won’t be listed as one of the best high school comedies made.  However, when compared to recent offerings it is definitely one of the more refreshing and funnier ones to come out in a while.  With strong chemistry between Whitman and Amell, and their individual strengths, along with a passable story, The DUFF is definitely worth checking out amongst many of the other clichéd romances or teen high school films that will fill open theater availability for the rest of the year.

The Duff

Director: Ari Sandel

Starring:  Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne

Rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying

Runtime: 110 minutes