16th Aug2015

‘The Duff’ Review

by Phil Wheat

Stars: Mae Whitman, Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Bianca A. Santos, Skyler Samuels, Romany Malco, Nick Eversman, Chris Wylde, Ken Jeong, Allison Janney | Written by Josh A. Cagan | Directed by Ari Sandel

the-duff

Bianca (Mae Whitman) is a content high school senior whose world is shattered when she learns the student body knows her as The Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) to her prettier, more popular friends. Now, despite the words of caution from her favourite teacher (Ken Jeong), she enlists the slick but charming Wesley (Robbie Amell), to help take back her ‘label’ and overthrow the school’s resident mean girl Madison (Bella Thorne) reminding everyone that no matter what people look or act like, we are all someone’s DUFF.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If there’s one genre I have a soft spot for, even as a thirty-odd year old man, it’s the teen movie. It’s safe to say that growing up in the era that gave us classic films from directors like John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles) and Savage Steve Holland (One Crazy Summer, How I Got Into College); and starring icons such as the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman), the teen movie was a staple of my cinematic diet. And it still is.

Of course having watched teen movies for almost thirty years there’s not a cliche, trope or stereotype I haven’t seen; and haven’t seen repeated over and over and over. The Duff is no different. After all, this is another take on the “ugly duckling” story, much like She’s All That, although this time it’s less about being made-over to become popular (and the pitfalls that usually entails) and more about actually being yourself – being that Duff and embracing it; finding your own way, rather than trying to conform to societal norms. Which is actually a refreshing change for the genre!

The Duff also works thanks to its two remarkably likeable leads, Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell, who interpret writer Josh A. Cagan’s script (itself adapated from the book by Kody Keplinger) perfectly. Amell is as as ridiculously charming and good-natured as his Arrow-starring older cousin, its easy to see why he’s making waves on US TV after watching The Duff. As for Mae Whitman, I’ve been a fan of her’s since the Scott Pilgrim movie, so it’s great to see her in a lead role, especially as here she seems to be channeling the same fiery yet funny attitude personified by the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Whitman is a true joy to watch.

To be fair, as a fan of writer Josh Cagan’s previous work – Bandslam and the TV show Undergrads – it’s great to see him keep up the stellar work here. And it seems he found two great actors to carry what is a fantastic pastiche on the likes of Mean Girls and Heathers. But The Duff is much more than that, it also has a lot to say about cyberbullying, body shaming, the perils of social media and, of course, the evils of high school cliches (it wouldn’t be a teen movie with the latter of course). And it’s funny. Very funny. And heartwarmingly charming. So essentially a triple-threat of greatness then…

***** 5/5

The Duff is released on DVD on Monday August 17th.

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