Growing up on a steady diet of John Hughes’ coming-of-age teen dramedies (‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ ‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘Pretty in Pink,’ etc.) as well as modern classics such as ‘Heathers’ and ‘Clueless,’ I still occasionally find myself dabbling in high school fluff like ‘Mean Girls,’ ‘Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion’ and ‘Easy A.’ Just don’t spread it around too much. Please.
‘The Duff’ is the latest entry in this popular genre. As we well know, other than being an institution of learning the American high school can be a highly stratified social system defined by various cliques like "jocks," "geeks/nerds," "mean girls" and the various "freaks" such as "goths/emos," "rockers" or "gleeks" which provide just one of the many anxieties a typical teenager has to deal with. While ‘The Duff’ is guilty of perpetuating these very same stereotypes, it also introduced a new and heretofore unknown category, the duff, or “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Duff’s are those people who are accepted by and hang around the ‘cool kids’ (as the catchy ‘Echosmith’ song whose lyrics I borrowed for this review’s title goes) but, because their friends tend to be much better looking, they unwittingly serve the important role of gatekeeper to those who wish to approach their more attractive friends (like asking them to the prom) but are too afraid or insecure to do so. Terrible, right?
More than simply another teen movie about embracing who you are and rising above the labels others place on you, ‘The Duff’ is a charming and funny Cinderella story about an "ugly duckling" who became a swan with some help from the high school's top jock (Robbie Amell), who also happened to be her neighbor across the street. Mae Whitman was a revelation as the sassy and smart Bianca Piper, the spunky little spitfire who refused to conform to her unofficial label and play by the rules when she found out that she's duff to her BFF's Jess (Skyler Samuels) and Casey (Bianca Santos). Like Emma Stone in ‘Easy A,’ her rocky journey of rebellion, self-discovery and triumph provides a feel-good story with appeal far beyond the movie’s intended demographic.