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Teen comedy The DUFF seems awful until it suddenly isn’t. Why?

Robbie Amell and Mae Whitman are so, so charming in The DUFF. That counts for a lot.
Robbie Amell and Mae Whitman are so, so charming in The DUFF. That counts for a lot.
CBS Films
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Going into the new teen movie The DUFF, I was 100 percent prepared to hate it. Critics aren't supposed to admit that we occasionally have pre-formed notions about things, but we're just like any of you — affected by the circumstances under which we see something and the marketing we're bombarded by.



In the case of The DUFF, I was particularly affected by the film's trailer and ads, which posited that the main character, Bianca, played by the wonderful Mae Whitman, was somehow the titular creature. "DUFF," you see, is an acronym that stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. How on Earth were the filmmakers arguing that the winning Whitman was somehow ugly and/or fat? (Designated or a friend? Sure.) It felt like Hollywood basically creating a movie called Body Image Issues: The Movie. And, worse, it seemed strikingly inaccurate!

But The DUFF won me over, to the degree that I found it to be one of the more charming teen comedies of recent years. How did it do that? Let me count the ways.

1) Whitman and Robbie Amell have ridiculously good chemistry

The DUFF is sneaky because it sets you up for one completely predictable teen movie, then slowly moves you over to completely different predictable teen movie, all without showing you what it's doing. The DUFF does such a good job convincing you that you're living in movie A, that it's surprisingly delightful to realize you're actually in movie B. It's like a sleight of hand trick.

The first act of the movie — when the film sets up the idea of a "DUFF" — is the clumsiest, proceeding with Bianca's attempts to un-DUFF herself by having her next-door neighbor, dumbass jock Wes (Amell), help her rework her style, attitude, and general demeanor. It's as if someone decided it was 2015, and that means women can She's All That themselves.

But a curious thing happens throughout the second act. The chemistry and banter between Whitman and Amell (who gives a steadily reliable dumb guy performance) grows and grows. By the time the two are perched on a rock in the middle of the woods, trying to talk about their feelings — and still trying to pretend those feelings aren't pointed toward each other — it's possible to be really into these two crazy kids and hope they make it work, even if they come from (gasp) different cliques.

2) The "DUFF," as it turns out, is just a state of mind

This is a little bit of a reach, considering that DUFF literally stands for something, but the film goes out of its way to argue that anybody can be a DUFF in pretty much any situation. It's all about confidence and projecting that you're comfortable in your own skin. So long as that's the case, it's much harder to be a DUFF. Or something like that.

This means that the film's arc isn't the familiar one of the awkward teenage girl discovering her inner pretty self, so the boys notice what a fox she is. Instead, it's about Bianca evolving from her slightly awkward, closed-off self to the person she'll probably be after a few years in her 20s, when she has a better idea of who she is and what works for her. The resolution of the film revolves not around conformity, but around something more like embracing one's true self. Or, to put this entirely in terms of Mae Whitman characters, it's about Bianca evolving from wallflower Ann "Her?" Veal on Arrested Development into the warm, funny, super-cool Amber Holt from Parenthood.

It's not a perfectly executed message, but the fact that it allows for any nuance at all puts it above many teen comedies.

3) The film treats its characters with real empathy

Too many teen comedies feature a long list of characters who are just there to play a stereotype, to provide one joke until it's been run into the ground. The DUFF falls into this particular pitfall here and there — particularly with ultra-generic hot girl antagonist Madison (Bella Thorne), who may as well have been purchased off a shelf full of stock characters — but it possesses a surprising deal of empathy for most characters in its universe.

Intriguingly, that empathy grows as Bianca learns to see other people for who they really are, not just for her preconceived notions of them. As she realizes that, say, her conventionally attractive friends (who unknowingly made her the "DUFF" in their friendship) have deeply felt feelings, too, her universe expands. Sneakily, The DUFF depicts emotional growth and real maturity.

4) Allison Janney plays the mom

Is there any good reason for Allison Janney to pop up as Bianca's mom? Not really, but it's always welcomed to have the consistently wonderful Janney turn up, even in what amounts to a smaller part. Bianca's mom is hugely important to a particular emotional turn in the film's late going, one that would be very difficult to sell without a great actress. Fortunately, The DUFF has Janney.

Janney's presence really stands in for a cast that's solid across the board. Whitman has been waiting for a lead role like this for a while, and Amell reveals previously unknown comedic strengths. And two of the teachers are played by ace comedians Ken Jeong and Romany Malco. These smaller parts could have gone to anyone. Since they didn't that should be your first indication The Duff is trying to do something more than be just another teen movie.

5) The direction and script are more clever than you'd expect

What director Ari Sandel and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan do is very, very sneaky. Throughout the film, they riff off the usual teen movie setups — the fashion store makeover, the big dance, the fancy dress. But they find ways to undercut or subvert them, whether through the dialogue and story structure, or through the filmmaking itself.

Sandel, for instance, flips around the usual "big reveal" of Bianca at the climactic dance, so that Bianca isn't the object of desire — like, say, Taylor Swift at the end of the "You Belong With Me" video — but that her male paramour is. It's surprisingly heady stuff, and it indicates, as many other things in The DUFF do, that there's more here than meets the eye.

The DUFF is currently playing in theaters everywhere.