Hot or Not: "The DUFF" sharper and sweeter than just another teen comedy

The DUFF (2015)
101 min., rated PG-13.

Standing for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend," female-fronted high school teen comedy "The DUFF" is a frisky, savvy representative of the genre that only comes along every five years or so. In what couldn't be further from a generic February throwaway with snark and of-the-moment social-media plugs (though both do exist), it's worth its salt in the same school, if not necessarily the same grade, as 2004's "Mean Girls" and 2010's "Easy A." Director Ari Sandel (the 2006 documentary "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show") and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan (2009's "Bandslam"), having adapted then-19-year-old author Kody Keplinger's 2010 novel of the same name, the film is sharp, cleverly acerbic and often laugh-out-loud funny, keying into teenage anxieties that of self-esteem and how others perceive one's beauty. Next to snappy direction and a script with equal laughs, edge, and charm is the film's secret weapon: the adorable Mae Whitman, who is neither ugly nor fat.

If you've been a teenager or have just worn out your VHS tape of "The Breakfast Club," you know high school has always been unfortunately based on hierarchy and labels. Malloy High School senior Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is more known for having two hot best friends, kind fashionista Jess (Skyler Samuels) and tough hacker Casey (Bianca A. Santos), than being any guy's object of desire. At a party, Bianca's neighbor, popular, girl-chasing football captain Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), accidentally refers to her as a "duff," which is news to her and only opens up a can of worms. Soon enough, Bianca begins to realize that every social circle has its alleged "duff," someone who is approachable and can lead an interested guy to the hot friend. Cutting off Jess and Casey immediately, first by de-friending them all on all social media outlets, she gets desperate and agrees to scratch Wes' back (read: help him pass chemistry) if he scratches Bianca's (receive dateable advice). Bianca also wouldn't mind if she could go on a first date with her crush, guitar-strumming Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman) to whom she can never seem to get more than two words out. But, to make matters worse, Wesley's on-again, off-again girlfriend, catty queen bee Madison Morgan (Bella Thorne), gets hold of an embarrassing video of Bianca and makes sure it goes viral and gets around school like wild fire.

Like Emma Stone's Olive Penderghast in "Easy A," Bianca Piper is independent-minded, quick-witted and whip-smart. By the useless standards of high school labels, she is an outcast, but being like Bianca seems way cooler than running the halls by belittling anyone who has his or her own personality and unconventional interests. She likes her flannel shirts and "This Is My Party Shirt" tee without giving a damn, and her defiance against everyone who sees her as unattractive or weird is both entertaining and touching, just like when Olive embraced her infamous status as a high school Hester Prynne. (While we're making comparisons to "Easy A," it's also worth mentioning that "The DUFF" actually employs two of the same songs—Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" and Jessie J's "Sexy Silk"—on its soundtrack, for whatever reason, as that immortal pop-culture Emma Stone starrer.) Mae Whitman has been an actress since she was a child in the '90s between "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "One Fine Day," and she's always been a scene-stealer, whether it be in a supporting role in TV's "Arrested Development," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" or TV's recently wrapped "Parenthood." This time, Whitman rightfully gets her own vehicle to show off her spot-on comedic timing, and she couldn't be more self-effacing, winningly offbeat and relatable. What's more, the 26-year-old actually passes for a high schooler. Her narration, not unlike Emma Stone's in "Easy A," is priceless ("Even my car is a duff!" she internally screams when parking her beat-up car in the school lot), and she can make a wardrobe-change montage seem fresh and funny (check out her moves with a few mannequins). Also, any teenage girl in the movies who's a self-proclaimed "cult movie fanatic" with posters of Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" and mad-slasher pic "Maniac" on her bedroom walls knows her way into this viewer's heart. 

Robbie Amell (TV's "The Flash") plays smarmy all too well at first, but he's magnetic, projecting so much charisma and surprising meathead humor as jock Wesley Rush that one can't help but like him. He and Whitman also share a sweet, naturally playful chemistry together as neighbors who used to bathe together as babies and could be something more now, no matter what the social hierarchy of high school says. The two of them also go for it in Bianca's imagined porno of Wes as the pool boy delivering a pizza. The one weak spot is Bella Thorne (2014's "Blended") as "pre-famous" mean girl Madison Morgan, who's so cruel and full of herself. It's no fault of the 17-year-old actress, who still shows some game comedic chops, but Madison is written on one note as the stereotype she is and remains that way, despite Bianca's homecoming dance-set comeback that offers Madison some self-examination. There isn't a rule that a teen comedy is only as good as its adult roles, but they have their memorable moments, too. Allison Janney is never not a comic delight, no matter how small the part, and makes every line delivery count as Bianca's divorced mom Dottie, a mantra-spouting, pantsuit-wearing self-help guru who tries applying her grief recovery phases to her daughter. Dottie might be trying to get back into the game, creating a profile on every dating website (including to make herself seem more exotic) and carefully avoiding the "duck face" for her profile pictures. The mere sight of the sobbing Janney, with a glass of white wine in one hand and the other on the wheel of a riding lawnmower, running down her ex-husband's clothes to shreds is a hoot. Ken Jeong never trips up into annoyance and comes away with silly belly laughs playing Mr. Arthur, the trying-hard-to-be-cool journalism teacher. Romany Malco is underused as out-of-touch Principal Buchanon, even with a few catch phrases, but Chris Wylde is a sneaky zinger-slinger as teacher Mr. Filmore ("Back in my day, we didn't have emoticons! We had actual facial expressions!"). 

Peppily paced and never full of its own wit to shed some gravity on the high school experience, "The DUFF" carves out an individual spot for itself among its like-minded cousins with enough replay value. It's been said countless times before about other teen comedies, but it deserves to be said again: this one really does harken back to the spirit of John Hughes' observations, sense of humor, and wise nature. Lest one sees the film as somewhat irresponsible for having Bianca take tips from a 17-year-old womanizer as Wesley, like getting rid of her "uniboob" and dressing more like everyone else, the film doesn't make that misstep or send out mixed messages. Though a little "Pygmalion" (and for that matter, "She's All That" and "Drive Me Crazy") gets thrown in for good measure, Bianca still goes back to being her funky self and letting her freak flag fly (amen). And, dealt with in a more mature fashion than what would be expected, Jess and Casey do not see Bianca as their schluppy "duff," or at least that was never their intention. They just happen to be hot and genuine and not shallow. Even when it slides into a unsurprising pattern and spells out its life lessons when it didn't have to, the film is as satisfying when Lloyd Dobler won over Diane Court and Jake Ryan fell for Samantha Baker. "The DUFF" embraces the girl-gets-the-guy conclusion as much as it celebrates the so-called social misfit, but it isn't even close to being its own "duff" in the genre. 

Grade: B +