I am twenty-four years old, so I really don’t have any right to say this, but after watching The DUFF, I feel unnecessarily old. I remember when I was a young teenager and I first saw She’s All That, a film that was supposedly emblematic of teens growing up in the late nineties and early millennium. And The DUFF hits pretty much all the same plot beats, right down to the male tutor giving fashion and dating advice to the awkward nerdy girl only to end up with the two of them in love with each other. What I don’t remember, though, was She’s All That being so blatantly pandering to its target demographic, and thinking that either makes me cynical or out of touch with those a decade younger than myself. Probably (hopefully) both.
The term DUFF stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a term that desperately wants to find its way into teenage lexicon via hashtag. The idea is that in any group of friends, one person is the most approachable and consequently least interesting, acting as a safe mechanism to volley conversation between those too nervous to speak with the more popular, interesting members of the group. Our protagonist, Bianca (Mae Whitman, or to those who watch Arrested Development, “Her?”), discovers that she has been an unwitting DUFF to her supermodel gorgeous friends, and so seeks to rebel against the trends and become self-sufficiently attractive enough to ask out the boy she likes. Enter the jock who agrees to help her in exchange for chemistry notes, and you can pretty much figure out where it goes from there.
I have to say, Whitman really pulls her own as the star of her own movie, consistently exuding a charisma that many twenty-somethings playing teenagers never quite manage. She’s goofy and funny, yet sympathetic in her desire to be more than just people’s stepping stone to her more popular best friends. (How she is even friends with these girls when none of them remotely share the same interests, I couldn’t tell you.) What is less than endearing, though, is the film’s constant attempts at referencing social media in order to appear hip and cool to teenagers. Yes. We get it. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all exist. But name-dropping social media sites in order to point out how foreign the concept seems to adults is not only antiquated, but also doesn’t get funnier with repetition.
Furthermore, the film has some really inconsistent moralizing, with a finale that seems to simultaneously tell its audience that it’s okay to be different and strange, yet still follows through on Bianca’s character arc of self-improvement through beautification. This is a pretty common problem in the teen comedy genre, and I would love to see a film rise above childish moralizing and just provide an original story for once, without all the baggage that emulating teen movies from the nineties entails.
And yet, despite its issues, The DUFF is a pretty decent and mostly inoffensive film. Whitman pretty much carries the film with her “Hollywood ugly” charm, and there were a few moments that genuinely made me laugh. I only wish that the plot, subtext, and pop culture references weren’t so recycled and already dated. In the information age, it only makes sure the film will be irrelevant to its target demographic by the time the streaming services pick it up.
Is the teen comedy genre inherently flawed? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.