Shove off, John Hughes. The DUFF, a high school comedy by Ari Sandel, opens by declaring that The Breakfast Club's social categories are, like, way passé. As Bianca (Mae Whitman) explains, "Jocks play video games, princesses are on antidepressants and geeks rule the world." Today, be ye goth kid, science dweeb or just plain ordinary, only one distinction counts: Are you hot or not?
Bianca is not. She's what her jerk neighbor Wes (Robbie Amell), the football captain, calls the DUFF, i.e., the "Designated Ugly Fat Friend." Before audiences grab their pitchforks to defend Whitman's honor, Wes hastily adds that DUFFs don't have to be ugly or fat — merely less cute than their friends. Further, being the DUFF is a noble sacrifice: By seeming approachable, Bianca serves as a bouncer granting select guys the OK to flirt with lovely Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca A. Santos).
Straightaway, there are several mysteries. First, who designates the Designated? Did her best friends pick her for her looks back in second grade? Or are they off the hook because an uglier friend is simply a fact of nature, thanks to an Intelligent Designer who can't be bothered to give everyone an aquiline nose? Second, why is Bianca friends with Jess and Casey at all? She's a drag, the kind of downer who grouses about the homecoming dance when everyone knows she's going anyway. Plus, not only does this droll horror film fanatic seem too tomboyish to deal with girls who insist on piling on masks of perfect face powder, Jess and Casey haven't even heard of Vincent Price — which, after a decade of friendship, implies that they've tuned out every word Bianca has said.
Josh A. Cagan's script aspires to be hyper-modern and clever. It's all hashtags and cyberbullying, as though it doesn't expect to have a shelf life longer than six years. (Stick around to the end credits for everyone's Twitter handle and Instagram.) Bianca introduces one character, a slender, auburn-haired dreamboat (Nick Eversman), as her #FutureBabyDaddy, but when she fondles a store mannequin while cooing his name, the terrorizing queen bee (Bella Thorne) makes the video go viral. At least Whitman, a barreling Mae West in overalls, sells the scene by snapping off the dummy's arm and tongue-tickling his broken socket.
She's a classic screwball starlet, the kind who's all moxie and eye rolls. To back her up, Sandel enlists grown-ups Ken Jeong, Romany Malco and Allison Janney as comic support. But he gets even better mileage out of young dramatic actor Amell, who takes a shallow role and turns it into a mini-meathead masterpiece.
The comedy is smartest when it takes swipes at pretty privilege. Jess and Casey are doted on by everyone at school, from the principal to the lunch lady. Bianca is invisible, an idea that clashes with what we see when the camera zooms in on Whitman — she's got 14 earrings, ripped overalls and a scowl, so she should stand out in the school's manicured-mallrat hallways as Judd Nelson once did. It's unclear if her beautiful BFFs are aware of the gulf between their physical gifts. If they are, a scene where Jess pressures Bianca to fit in by wearing her camisole, a sliver of fabric seemingly sewn together from moth wings, is just cruel. If not, they're so clueless to the pecking order that the film's very point is moot.
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To be fair, The DUFF doesn't seem to know what its point actually is. It's pro–self-acceptance and also pro-makeover. It's about liking yourself, and how you'd like yourself better with a boyfriend. Sure, the problem is an unhealthy societal fixation on superficial assessments of worth and attractiveness. But the movie insists that if Bianca really wants people to pay attention to her battle against beauty standards, she should first get a better bra and show off her boobs.
No matter how many Vine jokes Sandel squeezes in, The DUFF can't escape the same movie-logic pitfalls that Hughes tripped over in The Breakfast Club: The weirdo girl must wind up lipsticked, combed and kissed. Poaching a bit from another Hughes classic, she even slices up a closet treasure — here, a red lumberjack flannel — for a sexy homecoming frock, which she wears while insisting that attractiveness doesn't matter, even as her cleavage and curls say different. "We are all DUFFs!" Bianca commands, and Sandel cuts to her classmates belting the same, like social-outcast Spartacuses.
There's freedom in facing the truth. There would be even more freedom in a heroine finishing the film in her favorite ugly overalls, but we haven't gotten there yet. By the end, when Bianca cheers, "It's not about popularity or even getting the guy," it's clear she's been too obsessed with Vincent Price flicks to even watch her own movie.
THE DUFF | Directed by Ari Sandel | Written by Josh Cagan | CBS Films | Citywide