Depending on what your cultural reference points are, the term ‘duff’ means different things to different people. Is it with a capital D, as in the Budweiser-like beer beloved by Homer Simpson? Is it a type of flour pudding, as in a plum duff? Or is it the more casual ‘up the __’, a crude phrase signifying the miracle of pregnancy? [What about Hilary? - Ed.]
In the case of the latest Hollywood teen comedy to hit our shores it’s none of these things. Because the ‘duff’ in this context is not a word but an acronym: ‘designated ugly fat friend’. The unfortunate recipient of this dubious honour is high school senior Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) who is not in the least bit ugly or overweight (and the film is at pains to stress from the start that ‘duffness’ is a relative label), but compared to her two sylph-like and effortlessly elegant friends, she’s a hot mess of slob. Despite being the smartest of the three, Bianca is nevertheless blissfully ignorant until she’s informed by her studly next-door neighbour Wesley (Robbie Amell) in a tactless slip that she’s the not-so-hot gatekeeper of her trio that guys approach to try and get with her friends. Sent into a consequent self-esteem tailspin that’s fuelled by equal parts rage, grief and humiliation, she becomes determined to overhaul her status, her life and get the guy she’s been crushing on from afar – sensitive, guitar-playing hipster, Toby (Nick Eversman).
If any of the plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Overwhelmingly so. The trailers promoting the film scream that it’s ‘Mean Girls meets Bridesmaids!’, but the reality is that if you’ve seen any teen rom-com in the last 20-30 years, some element of it will be in here. Dorky girl gets a makeover thanks to the school jock as in She’s All That? Check. A protagonist turning overnight scandal into social success like in Easy A? Check. Realising you’re the outsider that everyone’s laughing at like in Never Been Kissed? Check. Add in scattered nods to Mean Girls, Clueless and even an homage scene to the cliques of The Breakfast Club, and all the main influences have been ticked off. More than any of those though, it shares resounding parallels to MTV’s wickedly snarky Awkward, which is the cooler, less try-hard elder sibling to The Duff, particularly in its realism and characterisation of secondary characters.
It’s hard to know whether it’s director Ari Sandler or novelist Kody Keplinger, whose novel inspired The Duff, who are to blame for its derivative and predictable progression, although it is only a loose adaptation. There are other shortcomings though. Flattened secondary characters, like Bianca’s popular girl nemesis who has no depth beneath her vapid bitchery, and archetypes of others – such as Ken Jeong’s educator whose entire purpose is to riff off the ‘sassy black woman’ schtick, the disappointingly standard way for camp guys to get a cheap laugh, also grates. As does the lazy racial fetishisation of Casey (Bianca A. Santos) as a “fiery Latina” who’s “caliente”. Furthermore, the film’s insistence on spelling things out in a painfully overdone manner – such as when Bianca unfriends her pals on all social platforms, and her big underdog speech at the end – could have both done with toning down.
Despite these flaws, Whitman puts in a winsome turn full of spark and self-deprecating humour. She carries the film, coming off as a younger Melissa Joan Hart and her natural chemistry and banter with Amell, plus a humorous turn by Alison Janney as her irreverently bonkers mother, ensures there’s heart at the centre of the snark. The clever use of hashtags throughout and iPhone message tones is a cute gimmick and make this the first teen film for the Twitter age, even if it occasionally feels forced (and might date it badly in years to come). But given that it recycles so many concepts from other teen greats so liberally, it might be time to declare a moratorium on high school rom-coms that centre the straight, white and middle-class experience and start looking to those on the margins for new inspiration.