Silver Screen: The DUFF ***1/2
Mae Whitman is Hollywood unpretty, which is to say that she’s beautiful in an understated, slightly unconventional way. Those looks— no broomstick arms or thigh gap, an hourglass figure with an extra ten minutes added— are the crux of The DUFF, a high school Pygmalion riff in which Whitman’s ugly duckling is coached to be a beautiful swan.
But The DUFF works because the filmmakers, led by first-time feature director Ari Sandel, don’t overstate their case or undervalue their plucky star. Whitman is presented more as a rough-around-the-edges duckling who changes into a beautiful duck. She’s never urged to trade her personality for popularity like Sandra Dee, nor does Sandel condescend to his audience by slapping a pair of glasses on a waifish catalogue model and expect us to believe she’s a Jane Merrick until she loses the specs. (If, like me, you came of age in the nineties, you probably think of this as the Rachael Leigh Cook Phenomenon thanks to She’s All That.)
The term DUFF sounds unambiguous— certainly it does to Bianca (Whitman) when next-door-neighbor hunk Wesley (Robbie Amell) explains it to her at a party: Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Right away the story threatens to go off the rails; it’s an improbably nasty thing to casually drop on somebody on a Friday night. But Wesley is quick to explain: She’s not fat or ugly. But she’s the approachable one of her friend group, which includes prototype hotties Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), and has made herself their subordinate.
It’s still a douche move, but Wesley’s sincere explanation softens him up and makes him credible as a character, albeit a slightly dim one. Most of The DUFF’s characters are allowed to be flawed without those flaws entirely defining them in service of the writer’s inelegant sermonizing. Wesley is genuinely good-natured, if misguided, and he’s also not wrong. Bianca does herself no favors in billowy flannel, omnipresent overalls, and the wrong size bra, all of which Wesley has gleaned from hours of watching Project Runway. He agrees to help her understand what guys find attractive if she can tutor him out of academic probation.
The target teen audience might not know where it’s going from here, but you’ve seen this story before. Still, screenwriter Josh Cagan, working from a novel by teen author Kody Keplinger, imbues it with a lot of heart and sharp humor. Its more blunt plot manipulations are easily balanced out by surprisingly subtle insights, like Bianca’s culpability in making herself overlooked— not because she can’t mimic what she thinks everyone else will find attractive but because she doesn’t know what’s attractive about herself.
The exception is stock antagonist Madison (Bella Thorne), a generic mean girl who seems to have walked in from some other, much worse movie. She’s a cartoon surrounded by real life— or at least a glossy Hollywood version of it. Otherwise, The DUFF stumbles only when it tries too hard to be hip, particularly when the filmmakers try to incorporate the latest social-media trends and come off like your dad reciting hip-hop lyrics. When Madison’s cohorts post an embarrassing video of Bianca to YouTube, a montage of students retweeting and reposting it begins with two kids looking at one another, nodding, and saying, “Viral.” It’s a hilariously literal misconception of how viral videos work and posits the teens as some kind of internet warlocks.
Curiously, The DUFF is littered with big-name costars with little to do. Allison Janney finds some nice emotional notes as a good-humored but too-busy single mom. Both Ken Jeong and Romany Malco, however, are almost distracting, not because they do anything wrong, but because we keep expecting these familiar comedy faces to do something funny, when in fact they’re filling tiny roles that exist to nudge the plot along. No worries, though, because it’s on Whitman to carry the film, and she does it with apparent ease. She’s not a traditional starlet, but she has both the comedy chops and dramatic range necessary to anchor a film. She’s a gem.
Whitman’s breakout role on Arrested Development provided one of that series’ best long-running jokes. She played the dour Ann, irrationally beloved by smitten teen George Michael and irrationally loathed by his father Michael. The gag worked because Whitman was too lovely to merit the father’s total disdain, but she could frown and frump well enough that the son’s ardor seemed equally misplaced. It was a delicate balancing act that required Whitman to be both audacious and unflashy. Whenever Ann was mentioned, a befuddled Michael invariably replied, “Her?”
After The DUFF, that response should be changed to an enthusiastic “Her!”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.