Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: "The DUFF"

High school movies are practically carbon copies of each other these days, but "The DUFF" is smarter, braver and more novel than the average bear. It follows a few of the conventions of the genre, but also ignores some, bends others or stands them on their head.

Yes, it's got the usual array of actors who are closer to 30 than 17, but that's about par for the course.

Mae Whitman is terrific as main character Bianca Piper, a smart, nervy girl who generally ignores the sort of ridiculous pressures teenage girls are subjected to: weight, clothes, popularity, boyfriends, etc. She writes for the school paper, favors denim coveralls, is kind and a bit kooky, loves horror flicks, and 25 years ago she would've been played by Winona Ryder.

Her two BFFs are Casey (Bianca Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels), who are super-cute and super popular. They are all warm and close with each other, but Bianca does notice that other people tend to either ignore her or talk to her about her friends rather than engaging with her. Meanwhile, she pines from afar for the blond, sensitive, guitar-strumming Toby (Nick Eversman).

The trio's foil is Madison (Bella Thorne), the bitchy "mean girl" who rules the popularity roost through intimidation and cyber-bullying. Her sometime boyfriend, Wesley (Robbie Amell), is captain of the football team -- and also Bianca's next-door neighbor and one-time childhood friend.

Things are going great until Wes casually observes to Bianca that she is her social clique's "DUFF" -- aka, Designated Ugly Fat Friend. Bianca is hardly ugly or fat, of course -- in the grand tradition of high school movies, she's a shlumpy swan just waiting for her transformation.

But Wes notes, in a joking but still somewhat mean way, that Bianca is the non-threatening, less attractive girl the others keep around to make themselves look good, and act as a social screen. He even points out that, among the football players, they use freshmen as their own DUFFs.

Needless to say, once the veil is lifted from her eyes Bianca's not too happy about her social status. She dumps Casey and Jess as friends, and begins a Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a cool, self-reliant chick.

As her tutor she picks Wes because, despite his immature jocularity, he tells the truth and seems to instinctively grasp male-female electricity. They go shopping for clothes -- he advises her to dress "less like Wreck-It Ralph" --  talk about how to move in for the first kiss, share some jokes, and find out the other isn't as terrible as they thought.

If the Bianca-Wes pairing might seem out of left field, Whitman and Amell sell it well. He's solid as the guy who's spent so long playing the inconsiderate doofus that he can't immediately turn it off when genuine emotions intrude. And she is compelling as the girl who's convinced herself she's above all this petty stuff, until it starts to swallow her.

Director Ari Sandel won an Oscar for his short film a few years ago, and now makes his confident feature debut. Josh A. Cagan adapted the screenplay from the book by Kody Keplinger. The pacing and tone, two of the hardest things for young filmmakers to get right, are spot on.

The filmmakers keep things on a brisk, youthful level, with screen text and animation reflecting the way modern kids' lives are filtered through digital aids and social media. (When Toby flips his hair in slo-mo, Bianca mentally projects "Amazeballs" all over the image.)

Ken Jeong livens things up as Bianca's dippy-yet-demanding journalism teacher, and Allison Janney plays her distracted mom. I also enjoyed Chris Wylde as a snippy science teacher. ("When I was in high school in the '90s, we didn't have emoticons.")

"The DUFF" ends up more or less exactly where you expect it to, but the main characters actually seem to grow and gain a little insight about themselves and the world, rather than just competing to fall in love.

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