No one is looking at teen movies for deep and meaningful analysis on the human condition. That being said, there is genuinely no reason why The DUFF is as bad as it is. Sexist, sizist, and casually racist, it’s the kind of movie that makes people hate America and the slickest terrorist recruitment video currently in mainstream cinema.
The DUFF follows a likable, kind, friendly highschool senior with a passion for journalism – but of course, that’s not really relevant information. What’s relevant is how she looks on the outside. While having a conversation with her dude friend at a kegger, she learns she’s what is called a DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend). Horrified and shocked with her ‘prettier’ and ‘superior’ friends for not telling her she’s the DUFF of their group – rather than being mad at the patriarchal system that allows such a phrase to be throwaway in the modern lexicon – she breaks up with her friends and instead starts listening to the advice of the guy who called her a DUFF in the first place. Obviously they fall in love thanks to some She’s All That voodoo penis bullshit, and yeah… that’s the plot in a nutshell.
It wants to be Mean Girls meets Easy A, with a mix of fantasy hallucinations, skit cut-scenes and characters with meta dialogue that’s just a few clichés short of being witty. It’s barely directed by Ari Sandel, who has a big career ahead of him on the next Jamie Pressly straight-to-DVD release. The camerawork is consistently atrocious – which is saying something considering all you have to do is shoot teenagers walking and talking for two hours as opposed to Jason Bourne parkouring through Paris. It’s executive produced by McG – because of course it is. Remember, this is the guy whose idea of female empowerment is having Charlie’s Angels perform a Pussycat Dolls routine in slow motion while dubbing over giggles. The film is based on a novel written by Kody Keplinger who was a senior in high school herself when she wrote it, so props to her. Unfortunately the concept is not so much underdeveloped but, like Elijah Wood in his thirties, it just hasn’t developed at all.
Yet the biggest problem with the film is it’s star, Mae Whitman. Let’s get this straight: there is nothing wrong with Mae Whitman’s performance. Like a back-up dancer in a shark costume during Katy Perry’s SuperBowl performance, she tries her best and works overtime with the material afforded to her. But at the end of the day she’s still a back-up dancer in a shark costume Katy Perry SuperBowl concert, not Anna Pavlova in Swan Lake. And the left shark, at that. The problem is in what fucking upside down, DC alternate universe could anyone look at the supreme human that is Mae Whitman and call her a Designated Ugly Fat Friend? Oh sure, they try to make her seem as ‘other’ as possible by putting her in overalls, combat boots and the occasional – dare I say it? – flannelette shirt next to a cast of 28-year-old teenagers decked out in the latest hooker wear from American Apparel and booty shirts. And sure, they may be size zeroes and Whitman a realistic size 10 (at most), but that does not make her fat for fuck’s sake: it means she ate a carb, at least once, and girlfriend probably enjoyed it. Robbie Amell is the film’s (Freddie) Prince (Jr.) and he shares more than just chiseled abs and enviable bone structure with his famous cousin Stephen Amell (from Arrow). He’s charming and charismatic in a Dave Franco way and given how hard he’s worked on the red carpet pole dance, he’s someone who will become a bonafide star. Yet in a world where they’re finally auditioning actual 16-year-old’s for Peter Parker you can’t have an Amell play a teenager – dude looks like a 30-year-old Armani model.
It’s a film of worsts: the worst jokes, the worst fashion, the worst script, the worst concept and the worst execution. But the very worst, worst, worst, worst thing about The DUFF is it’s faux empowerment message. It tries to turn the very title of the film – Designated Ugly Fat Friend – on its head by having completely ordinary white people reclaim the word with gusto in the same way Dave Chappelle has been outspoken about the N-word. “Yeah, I am a DUFF – but so what?” says one character. “I’m proud of it.” Record scratch and reality check please: no one with any healthy level of self-esteem should want to claim themselves as a Designated Ugly Fat Friend because the very idea of that is based on assigning the status of your own self-worth based on comparing yourself physically – and only physically – with those around you. It’s not based on your personality, your intelligence, your kindness: reclaiming the word DUFF is literally saying ‘Yes, my entire value as a human is based on my outward importance and I’m okay with that’. No one should be okay with that. Period.
It should be unsurprising that a film based of an Urban Dictionary catchphrase is a cinematic turd, but The Duff really elevates itself among some of the most superficial, offensive and downright stupid teen movies of our time.
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.