I don't know how to not make this sound creepy, but I have a "director's crush" on Mae Whitman. It's not that I find her sexy, but I do think she has tremendous on-screen appeal. She's a strong actress with expert comic timing, a unique charisma, and a face that, simply put, is watchable. In short, she's the kind of actor I'd love to work with one day. (I thought this way nearly 20 years ago about both Melanie Lynskey and Mary Lynn Rajskub, and eventually put my money where my mouth was.)
As The DUFF has given Whitman her first leading role in a mainstream feature, I wanted my $8 to show Hollywood that I support this decision. It's a rare bit of fandom for me. Don't expect to see it again unless, say, Tina Majorino gets a similar break.
In The DUFF, Whitman plays Bianca, a brainy high school senior who dresses like a tomboy and has a fondness for classic horror movies. Inexplicably, she has absolutely zero geeky or even remotely like-minded friends. Equally inexplicably, her BFFs are two of the hottest girls in school.
Yes, it's implausible. So perhaps Bianca shouldn't be too shocked when Wesley (Robbie Arnell), the handsome-but-dumb jock who lives next door, opines that she is actually her buddies' "DUFF" – their Designated Ugly Fat Friend, a high school archetype that nobody's ever heard of.
Of course, Bianca's outraged, mainly because she, like the audience, knows that she's not ugly or fat at all. But soon she gleans that the rest of her high school actually does see her as the Plain Jane emissary for her beautiful girlfriends. So she angrily dumps her gal pals and offers to help Wesley pass chemistry in exchange for tips on how to un-DUFF-ify herself and get the guy she wants.
The best way to enjoy The DUFF is to ignore the uninspired plot and focus on Whitman, who's terrific, and who has wonderful chemistry with Arnell. (Both actors, by the way, are 26 years old.) While watching the movie, I had the sense that more plot-oriented material was filmed but scrapped – at least a couple of setups have no pay off – as either the director or some unusually insightful studio execs could see that the scenes between Whitman and Arnell were by far the best part of the movie.
There's still a lot about The DUFF that doesn't work. Namely Madison (Bella Thorne), Wesley's on-again, off-again girlfriend. She's both written and performed as a one-dimensional villain, and the movie bogs down whenever she shows up. This is one of those cases where I wish I could have come in to do a script rewrite. In this post-Mean Girls climate, there's no excuse for such a hackneyed antagonist.
Similarly, it's hard to believe that a cool alterna-chick like Bianca, who's a senior and has lived in the neighborhood all her life, doesn't have more of a familiarity with her classmates. Surely she would know many of these kids well, and they her. Yet there are scenes in which she's so isolated from them – and even, sigh, laughed at in slow-motion – that it simply doesn't ring true. It's a pity, because Whitman's performance is so sharp. There are many times in which she calls B.S. on the material in order to keep a scene real, which makes it all the more frustrating when she does give in to the cliches.
If you don't care for Mae Whitman, there's nothing else in The DUFF worth your while. But she is, as expected, likable and funny, and proves herself fully capable of anchoring a film. Robbie Arnell is a nice surprise as her unlikely ally, and there's a decent amount of laughs to be had.
In the end, this movie is not much worse than John Hughes' beloved teen comedies (Pretty in Pink is The DUFF's closest ancestor), or Clueless, or Mean Girls. But that's partly because those "classics" are far less perfect than you remember them. The DUFF may even join their hallowed ranks one day – at least in the eyes of tomorrow's nostalgic thirtysomethings.