On the surface, the plot of The Duff, follows in a long tradition of Boiler-Plate Teen comedies . The recipe is: Take a misfit protagonist, a stuck up homecoming queen, the school jock, and sprinkle in some John Hughes teen angst and stir.
The plot off “The Duff” is the most highly derivative teen comedy I have ever seen and, since most of these films borrow from each-other, that’s saying alot. Here are some of the more copy-cat plot points:
The central character of the film is a social mis-fit who is just one make-over away from being attractive (in every teen flick): check
The embarrassing viral video (see “American pie”)
The pretty but dim friends (any teen comedy) check
The climactic prom scene where the jock must make a decision to choose love over social convention. (She’s All That) Check
The cool girl’s come uppance (every teen comedy)
The central story of the film involves Bianca’s realization that she is the Duff (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) for her friend group to whom people approach who are more interested in her prettier friends. Once she realizes this less-than-profound fact, she is able to take a stronger ownership of her invisible social status:to act/dress different, confront her peers, ie get out of her comfort zone and take more risks. She quickly buddies up with jock, “Wesley Rush” who, in exchange for help with his science Class, agrees to help tutor her to confront her Duff Status and navigate through the tough social waters of high-school life ( you know,in between push-ups/making out with the homecoming queen).
Ulitmately, What makes these geek to chic teen comedies work is largely the likability/relatability of the central character. That’s where this film, for me, breaks above the average pack of this genre. The writers make The Duff, aka Bianca Piper (played appealingly by by Mae Whitman) a fully three dimensional character. Not too Goody-Goody, not too much of an angry outsider. She just seems real. She’s casual and self-deprecating but also sharply critical of the people around her. Physically, Mae Whitman she reminds me as sort of a cross between Amanda Bynes and janeane Garofalo ( although with less real-life baggage than Bynes and less sardonic than Garofolo). The writers also smatter-in plenty of witty social media references and pop culture references to keep things moving and entertaining.
But of course, “The Duff” is the most likable character in the film The writers hardly give the other characters a fighting chance. The other actors are mostly stock figures: pretty girls who take turns either preening or mercilessly bashing their underclassman. The only other character who has a more singular personality is the 2nd lead of the film, The Jock/heartthrob “Wesley Rush”. I like how the writers named a football character “Wesley Rush”. Get it? I guess the name “Scott Scrimmage” was too on the nose. The writers make him a decent guy but with raunchy streak that gives his character more depth/reality than your basic jock/good samaritan type which is pretty common in these types of films. Less successful, though, is the odd addition of actress Allison Janey to play The Duff’s mother Its questionable why they cast Janney as mother since she towers above Mae and physically they barely seem part of the same species much less family members. The film largely sidelines the talented Janney relegating her to just a sounding board for Bianca’s problems .
The film is obvious in its treatment of social groups. These types films never met a cliche’d teen niche they didn’t like/exploit. From the original template of The Breakfast Club: you have your Jocks, criminals, nerds, wierdos etc. Anyone who has experiences high school, knows that social groups that not very sharply delineated. Its not like jocks or nerds telegraph their status that obviously: “Look, I’m a jock and I can’t be seen talking to you. Read the contract!”. Social groups are, more often than that more varied; weird melting pots of people who could probably and do hang equally with many different social groups.
The ending morality of the film, everybody is somebody’s duff. We’re all nerds, blah blah is straight out of every other teen movie from John Hughes On. Not that earth-shattering. But its still nice to see difference being embraced after the slew of body shaming/ cyber bullying that happens so frequently online and through social media these days. Its also nice, if cliched, to see the heroine of the film achieve love and self-acceptance. So, despite its extremely copy-cat, by the numbers plot-line and cardboard supporting characters, I liked the lead actors and some of the sharp/witty dialogue enough to give this film a B- (On a highly more generous Teen-Comedy Scale)