Modern references don’t hide stale high school comedy’s lack of substance

In its opening narration, The DUFF pays homage to its legendary high school movie predecessor, The Breakfast Club. But where that film shines thanks to its poignant dialogue and timeless themes, all The DUFF’s reference does is set an unattainably high bar for what turns out to be a vapid, predictable romantic comedy.

The movie is based on the 2010 debut novel by New York City-based author Kody Keplinger.

High school senior Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is devastated when she finds out that she’s a DUFF — that’s “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” for those of you who don’t have time for a quick visit to Urban Dictionary.

The dumpy but approachable gatekeeper to her two much hotter friends, Bianca’s plain looks and quirky-but-awkward sense of humour leave her feeling like an outsider at her high school.

The Duff will be in theaters Feb. 20.

Photo courtesy of Entertainment One Films

Determined to cast off the label she’s been given, Bianca enlists the help of Wesley (Robbie Amell), the popular jock who lives next door, to help revamp her image.

This traditionally crafted high school movie comedy could have been a breath of fresh air in a young adult entertainment world dominated by mythical creatures and dystopias, but The DUFF falls flat.

It goes for the old tropes: mean girls, nice boys, makeovers and homecoming dances, all packaging the message that labels don’t matter and accepting yourself for who you are is what counts. Cute, but nothing that hasn’t been seen a hundred times before in every other high school movie.

In a thin attempt at newness and relevance, The DUFF also tosses around some updated slang terms and name-drops as many current social media platforms as it possibly can. They get the cheap laughs they’re aiming for, but give it two years and the references will be dated.

While no one will convince me that the tiny, adorable Mae Whitman could ever be considered fat or ugly, her delivery and Robbie Amell’s comedic timing are some of the movie’s few redeeming qualities.

Amell and Whitman share a moment in the woods.

Photo courtesy of Entertainment One FilmsThe little quiver in Whitman’s voice during The DUFF’s few serious scenes is spot-on. As for Amell himself, I’d have trouble buying the exquisitely ripped 26-year-old as a high school boy, if not for the scene where he draws a penis on a blackboard (because seriously, what is it with high school boys and doing that?).

The DUFF is cute, but you have to take it for what it is: a mindless teen comedy. Granted, it’s genuinely enjoyable if you’re in the right mood for that kind of thing.

You find yourself getting into Bianca’s painfully awkward charm almost despite yourself. It has quite a few funny one-liners and guest appearances by Ken Jeong and Allison Janney.

But what The DUFF doesn’t have is the depth and staying power of the classic high school films from the ’80s and ’90s, including The Breakfast Club, that it tries to bring to mind.

Ultimately, memes, hashtags and Vines aren’t enough to salvage this formulaic, forgettable film, in theatres Feb. 20.

mfarkas@cjournal.ca