There’s a thing in movie-making, or in any kind of popular commercial endeavor, called a “target audience.” This is the group or demographic to whom the movie is attempting to appeal, and in order to experience it, one must put themselves in that mindset. Any critic who attempts to review a movie, I believe, should judge any movie based on how it works within the frame of the target audience and how well it hits that mark. I recently saw the movie The DUFF, a teen relationship comedy in the vein of She’s All That. This movie was not and is not made for me, but the theater-full of teenage young women in the audience reacted very favorably to it. And did I enjoy myself while it was on? I did.
The PG-13 teen sex comedy is a tough balance to strike. It has to be chaste enough, or at least not particularly graphic, so as not to fall into the genre-killing R-rated range, but not so soft that it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing any boundaries. The DUFF, based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, written by Josh A. Cagan and directed by Ari Sandel, attempts to walk that particular balance beam and does manage to pack in more bawdy humor than expected while not being raunchy as such. It’s also a movie that possibly has a few too many moving parts to truly make any real statement.
The film follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), who we know is the main character because she’s narrating, and who is also the third in a triumvirate of friends also consisting of Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). While Jess and Casey are always being fawned over by the guys in the school for their supermodel good looks, Bianca is not, do in no small part to her dress sense which, get this you guys, is not very fashionable. But she’s smart and funny and doesn’t usually care too much about what people think, until they all go to a party at the school’s internet-celebrity ice princess (Bella Thorne)’s house. It’s there that Bianca’s childhood friend and neighbor Wesley (Robbie Amell), the captain of the football team, informs our heroine that she is the “DUFF” in her friend group. That, of course, stands for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” and the DUFF is used for vetting purposes. Nobody WANTS to talk to DUFFs, but they know they have to if they want to get close to the hot friends. This doesn’t sit with Bianca who summarily unfriends Jess and Casey. But, Bianca has a crush on a boy and can’t say more than three words to him so she enlists Wesley’s help, much to her own chagrin, to help make her less of a DUFF.
Most of this stuff we’ve seen a million times. In fact, there are specific references to things like The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles all throughout the movie. Everybody’s an archetype and the resolutions you think you see coming are the ones actually on their way. Like I said, this movie isn’t for me, but every beat got the desired audible reaction from the young female crowd in attendance, so the filmmakers were doing something right.
What I was quite pleased with was just how winning both Whitman and Amell are, especially in their scenes together. They’re each quite a bit older than high schoolers, 8 years removed at least, but they can certainly still act the part. This age, though, means that they have more experience. Some of the best and most charming stuff in the movie is when the two actors are just riffing off each other and having banter. I’ve been a fan of Mae Whitman for a long time so it’s really terrific to see her carrying a movie and actually getting to take chances and show how great she can be. And, while I only know Amell from his work on The Flash so far, he’s got some great comic timing and is one of the more handsome leading men you’re likely to see. The loud gasps when the actor merely entered the frame the first time was enough to prove he’s got a fanbase, which means the movie will also.
If this type of thing is your thing, I think you’ll find yourself enjoying The DUFF, and if it’s not, then you probably won’t. I laughed a few times and despite some guy-a-mile-away plot moments, walked away feeling just fine about it. And from a jaded film snob, that’s a very good sign.