I don’t represent the target demographic of Ari Sandel’s The DUFF, so my experience with the film is not going to be especially representative of its audience. But for what it’s worth, I found The DUFF to have its share of modest pleasures, in what was less a rewarding formal experiment and more of an ethnologically enlightening one. It’s a film that made me aware of my age, the tangible differences in my teenage to adulthood mentality, and the methods in which young (er) people interact with technology. It’s not a film that directly addresses these complex personal issues – its central thematic concern can be tritely summed up as an effort to persuade its audience to stay true to one’s self– but its nevertheless the sort of moderately amusing new release found in February that has more than a couple of things on its mind.
Mae Whitman, best known as “her?” in Arrested Development, is fitting as Bianca. The proverbial rocky road to a sorbet of vanillas, she becomes aware of a social title – the designated ugly fat friend, or duff – that’s been ascribed to her, with the film’s efforts geared toward her denouncement of it. Alienating her friends and embracing a more proactive lifestyle, she seeks the help of her classmate, a jock named Wesley (Robbie Arnell), to get her dream guy. Neighbors since high school, the two are friends out of necessity, where Bianca capitalizes on his social position in exchange for her tutoring help. Any regular moviegoer with an understanding of genre convention can see where this film goes a mile away, but its predictability is nulled by Whitman and Arnell’s chemistry and developed rapport. Likeability goes a long way in a romantic comedy and it’s The DUFF’s most thankfully exploited resource.
Whitman’s Bianca seems to be modeled by Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson – the two characters are the kind of delightfully hopeless and relentlessly funny types that one can’t help but cheer for. And it’s in Whitman’s Bianca where her adolescent anxieties register as especially true. Unfortunately, the film amplifies its thematic concerns much too loudly, constantly relying on dialogue and labored situations to get its message across. Strip away the speechifying and you have a genuinely funny high school comedy about adolescence and the value of a human connection amid a technological wasteland. Shame The DUFF feels the need to highlight, underscore, and CAPS-lock its way to that point.