Mae Whitman plays Bianca, an awkward girl who uses her minimal social energy on her two closest friends, Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos). Bianca likes Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman), a blonde, wavy-haired guitar player who she often passes in the hallway, but she's satisfied by the companionship of her pals until her neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell) off-handedly comments that she's the "DUFF": Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Bianca isn't fat or ugly, but the term isn't literal -- it refers to whoever in a core group of friends is the "approachable" one, through whom people get information about the stars of each group. Bianca responds to this information by ditching Jess and Casey and trying to figure out how to make it on her own. Apologetic, Wes agrees to help Bianca figure out how to talk to Toby in exchange for Bianca's help with his science grades.
In clearly stating the fact that the DUFF doesn't have to actually be ugly or fat, the filmmakers hope to avoid comparisons to She's All That and the "glasses and ponytail" school of secret beauty. To that end, the movie does a reasonably good job: when Bianca puts on a sexy dress, she observes in voice-over that it isn't a revelation, just her in a dress. It's also genuinely pleasing that Jess and Casey are legitimately Bianca's friends; when Bianca blows up, they give her space even though it hurts and get her back when she needs it. Wes' confidence-boosting crash course is also pretty great: he not only tells Bianca to think less about what she looks like and more about how she feels, but also uses exercises that might actually build her confidence, like telling her to talk to strangers at the mall until she gets somebody's phone number. There aren't any elaborate set-ups or complicated routines; instead, Wes shows her how to be more outgoing, and the payoff for this (actually near the middle of the movie) is satisfying in a low-key way.
At the same time, The DUFF is pitched in some sort of semi-cartoon universe that has no anchor point for how silly or unrealistic things are gonna get. It's hard to tell if the social media aspects of the movie came from Kody Keplinger's source novel or screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, but the film displays a certain obsession with the concept of Twitter and facebook without appearing to understand it at all. Kids turn to one another and say "Viral!" before sending a viral video around, which the movie conveys using text message and "new email" sound effects, as if people actually have to send a video to one another. The scene where Bianca fights with Jess and Casey is an excruciating back-and-forth of the girls unfriending and unfollowing each other on social media, which might've been funny if director Ari Sandel knew how to play the scene in a manner that doesn't seem oblivious and obnoxious. Bianca is also hounded by Madison (Bella Thorne), Wes' on-again, off-again queen bee girlfriend, and although many mean girls are motivated by their own cruelty, Thorne has no actual character to play. A scene where she comes face-to-face with Bianca and Bianca demands to know what she needs to do to get Madison off her back only underlines the character's lack of motivation other than being a bad person.
At the center of the movie is the relationship between Bianca and Wes, which is simultaneously the obvious route for a movie like this to go in, yet one that is satisfying thanks to the chemistry of its leads. When Sandel backs off a little bet and lets Whitman and Amell's charm take over, the movie is genuinely sweet, especially in a scene where the pair visit Bianca's quiet place (a later moment in this same location is also a perfect moment rooted in character, even if Wes' obliviousness to why the moment is meaningful is a little hard to buy). On the other hand, their bond brings out some of the movie's most uncomfortably edgy comedy. Call me a prude, but I can't remember the last time I saw a PG-13 movie with so much sexually charged dialogue and humor. Generally, getting it on is left to R-rated comedies like American Pie, but The DUFF is preoccupied with it as a source of discussion and humor, from tongues coming out of assholes to a sequence where Bianca actually imagines an internet porn video starring herself and Wes. Even more awkward is the way these gags are sandwiched between ones actually aimed at making parents laugh, such as references to Spinal Tap and the cosmic importance of high school. There's a nice movie about accepting yourself somewhere in The DUFF. Good luck finding it.
The Video and Audio
Trailers for Insurgent, Spare Parts, The Hunger Games - Mockingjay: Part 1, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and What If play before the main menu. No trailer for The DUFF is included. All of the extras are presented in HD.