Mae Whitman is a rock star. For years she has stolen scenes in well known films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, while flexing her dramatic chops on television, appearing on Thief (holding her own opposite Andre Braugher), ER, Grey’s Anatomy, and of course her five seasons playing Lauren Graham’s daughter on Parenthood. With a career that spans over 20 years, the talented actress can do just about anything. In her new film, The Duff, Whitman proves that she can also carry a film and turn what sounds like a flimsy premise into a real winner.
“Duff” is an acronym for “Designated Ugly Fat Friend,” a term that Whitman’s character, Bianca, has never heard before. Bianca is a strong willed, independent high school senior who favors overalls and flannel over skintight jeans and low cut tank tops, the apparel of all the “hot” girls. Bianca should know, her two best friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos) are two of the most admired girls in the school. Not that they exhibit any mean girl behavior. In fact, they adore Bianca and are very loyal to her. That’s fine because Madison Morgan (former Disney star, Bella Thorne) has enough bitchiness to cover everyone in the school.
It’s at one of Madison’s parties that Bianca is told she’s a Duff. The harsh words come from Wes (Robbie Amell), the boy who grew up next door to Bianca and is in some ways like a brother to her. Wes isn’t trying to be cruel. In fact tries to point out that Bianca is neither fat or ugly, it’s just that she’s the “misfit” who hangs with two popular girls and she serves the function of acting as a mediator between people who want to meet Jess and Casey.
As you may guess, Bianca is appalled and hurt. The devastation Whitman gives Bianca when she is told that her two best friends may keep her around so they can look better is palpable. Anyone who’s ever been put down can relate to what Whitman conveys in that scene. She’s superb.
Fearful that her Duff status is ruining her chances of getting to know her crush, Toby (Nick Eversman), Bianca asks Wes to help her shed her image and become more desirable. In exchange, she tutors him in Chemistry so he can rejoin the football team and ultimately get a scholarship, his only chance of getting out of their small Atlanta suburb.
Amell makes Wes funny, sweet, and a heartthrob (he even has a cute, albeit gratuitous, topless scene) and comes across as an all around decent guy, even when he’s being a dumb jock. Therefore, you know that the independent minded braniac is eventually going to fall for the guy next door. And I wouldn’t expect anything less from a teenage rom com.
Nevertheless, The Duff works within the confines of its formula and offers up plenty of laughs and some inventive filmmaking courtesy of first time feature director Ari Sandel (who won and Academy Award in 2006 for his musical short, West Bank Story). Working from a smart script by Josh Cagan, based on the book by Kody Keplinger, Sandel delivers a film that feels like a throwback to some of the great 80s teen flicks, while still being fresh and current.
The Duff’s great cast also includes Ken Jeong as Bianca’s journalism teacher, and the inimitable Allison Janney as Bianca’s mother, who’s suffered from a terrible divorce and become a successful motivational speaker. But it’s Mae Whitman who carried the film and she shines. When she needs to be funny, she makes you laugh out loud, and when the script requires you to feel the wounds of her heart, she brings you into her pain.
I hope that more producers watch this film and consider Whitman and Sandel for future projects. They both deserve it. Whitman, in particular, has proven that she’s a jewel no matter what she does.
The Duff is available now on Blu-ray. It’s also available on DVD and Digital HD. Rated PG-13, it’s a great way to spend a couple hours with your teenage children. Both of my kids loved it (including my action hero movie loving son) and have watched several times.