The Duff, You Guys. Terrible Title. Not a Terrible Movie.


I’m as surprised as you are, but The Duff, starring Mae Whitman of NBC’s Parenthood, actually isn’t so bad. It opens Thursday evening at your favorite suburban cineplex.

It’s got a tough hurdle to overcome initially because it’s called “The DUFF,” which stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. That’s a really unsavory label — I almost didn’t see it on principle — but the script goes to great lengths to convince us that it feels the same way about its unsavory-ness. In the moralizing language of teen romances: "We are more than the labels we’re stamped with in high school."

Just to put things in perspective, the film is based on a novel of the same name by a Kentuckian named Kody Keplinger, who was 17 when she wrote it.  

Bianca Piper (Whitman) is your typical “not conventionally attractive” high school senior. She’s witty, quirky, the star reporter for the school paper, etcetera. But when she learns from her jock neighbor that she has unwittingly been a DUFF for her hot friends — the theory goes they keep her around because she’s “more approachable” — she tries to reinvent herself.

That's about it, and it sounds like such a stupid premise as I’m describing it, but the performances of Whitman and Robbie Amell (CW's The Flash), the charming quarterback who trades fashion and dating advice for chemistry notes, will win you over in a hurry. Despite the formulas and stereotypes of high school rom-coms — goofy faculty, homecoming drama, pre-packaged self-discovery — this one is unexpectedly charming.  

Of course it’s got its share of issues. Like the students at Malloy High, the film itself is a little too enamored of social media. Its motifs are used effectively, with voice over, as an expository tool — Tobey Tucker, Hashtag: Amazeballs!!! — it's never quite clear if the students' hyper-active digital lives are intended as realism or social commentary.  Also, in The Duff's quest to subvert stereotypes, it creates a few characters who reside too far beyond the pale.

But don’t worry. You’re going to see this one for the chemistry of the two leads and the emergence of Mae Whitman. She'd won me over in 1994 as Bill Pullman's pigtailed daughter in Independence Day, and then again, with the backwards ballcap, as Geoge Clooney's daughter in One Fine Day. She's grown up before our eyes on Parenthood, and now, in The Duff, she's a heroine and sweetheart to whom we can all relate.

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