The hurt on Bianca’s face is appropriate the day she is informed by an otherwise good friend that her place in the high school pecking order is to be “The DUFF” – The Designated Ugly Fat Friend, meaning that she is the friend that other girls keep around to make themselves look more attractive. “It’s not like a big deal, every group has one” he says, “You know the one who doesn’t look as good , thus making their friends look better.” Placed in such a mean-spirited and unfair distinction fills Bianca, reasonably, with anger and resentment. It is therefore perfectly reasonable that the guy who gives her this information gets a drink thrown in his face.
The bitter heartlessness behind such a distinction is an ungainly weight tied around the neck of an otherwise cute teen comedy. The DUFF is not a wretched or dismissive movie, but a cute comedy burdened by a repugnant ideology that it never overcomes or knows what to do with. The idea is that everyone is, or knows, a DUFF but the movie isn’t about proving that you are beyond such a cruel distinction but that it’s okay to embrace such a label with pride. It’s a flawed reasoning that kills any potential that this movie has.
Our hero is Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) a cute high school teenager who is somewhat removed from the social circles of those around her because she doesn’t give in to whatever vapid trendy nonsense that her schoolmates happen to latch themselves onto. She dresses in flannel and overalls and does whatever she pleases whether it’s popular or not – in other words, she an individual. She’s a pretty girl with a bright and charming personality. Anyone would be lucky to have her as a friend.
Therein lies the problem right away. Bianca is neither fat, nor ugly, and the people who encourage this label are certainly not friends. Bianca is a person of her own making, an individual who seems to have spent a great deal of time building herself up outside of what her classmates are doing. Apparently that’s not enough as her childhood friend Wes (Robbie Amell, cousin to Stephen) tells her one night at a party. Visibly hurt (see above) she dismisses his hateful label and goes on about her life – great. What is not so great is what she does next. She asks Wes for help in changing her image thereby casting off the DUFF label. Of course, by all measure of reason, she should have told him to drop dead, but instead she gives up her individuality and tries being something she’s not.
The problem is, it goes south fast. While on a shopping spree one of the mean girls from school takes a video of Bianca playfully humping a mannequin in a department store and doing various other things that might be unwise in public. The video goes viral and Bianca finds herself the target of cyber-bullying and a laughing stock at school. And the rest of the movie is her attempts to overcome such humiliation and win the heart of the guy she likes (not Wes).
What is most uncomfortable about this movie is that the DUFF designation exists at all. It is explained to Bianca that she is a DUFF, but instead of casting away such a label, she attempts to embrace it. It’s a dysfunctional idealism that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with, and it’s strapped to a character who wouldn’t fit such a hateful label in the first place. Bianca is a wonderful human being, a charming girl with a bright personality and a personal style that is all her own.
Bianca is played in a charming performance by Mae Whitman, a former child actor who has a bold and wonderful screen presence that I hope to see in a better movie. She is burdened by a plot that pulls her down, forcing her into a march through the standard beats of all high school comedies. Better teen movies have come along lately that have freed their characters from the confines of convention and let their characters be people, see The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, Juno, Dazed and Confused. Those movies are about people, not plotting. No one in those movies is a DUFF, and no one would be put up with being labeled as one.