The trailers for “The DUFF” weren’t terribly promising. It looked like a fairly standard-issue high school comedy, complete with a “frumpy girl gets to look conventionally pretty” plot (the titular acronym refers to a “designated ugly fat friend”). The presence of Ken Jeong as a wacky teacher didn’t look like it would help much, either. But while reviews are hardly glowing, they’re surprisingly warm (if mixed), with Kyle Smith’s in particular calling the film “slightly radical in portraying high schoolers as human beings of normal niceness and intelligence.”
Reviews are split between those calling it a warm, funny high school comedy and those who think it’s a fairly standard one, with some lamenting the film’s emphasis on social media jokes that are going to age within a few years. But even the most skeptical reviews are lauding Mae Whitman, an actress who’s been terrific in small roles for a long time (“Arrested Development,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) and who’s finally given a chance to prove herself as a lead. She’s been called not just funny and likable, but downright unpredictable by The Guardian’s Jordan Hoffman, who calls her performance “practically an exploration in jazz.” That’s as good a reason to check out a questionable-looking comedy in February as any.
“The DUFF” hits theaters February 20.
Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian
Most of the credit goes to Mae Whitman, best known for smaller roles in “Arrested Development,” “Parenthood” and “Scott Pilgrim vs the World.” In addition to working with a zing-rich script from Josh A Cagan (based on a novel written by then teenaged Kody Keplinger) Whitman’s turn as Piper is a marathon of what they call in acting classes “good choices”. Pretty much everything she does is equal parts funny and endearing, and slightly unpredictable. Not that the movie isn’t predictable – you’ll figure out which guy she’ll end up with pretty early in the film — but the way Whitman dodges the typical teen-girl portrayal is practically an exploration in jazz. Bianca Piper is a character all up in her head (a writer, naturally) who manages to switch from sincerity to sarcasm with lightning speed. It’s in her deep voice, her nonverbal reactions, her glances, her body language. It is, truly, a remarkable performance. Read more.
Inkoo Kang, The Wrap
There are, of course, a few quibbles to be had. The cyberbullying angle resolves perhaps a touch too conveniently, and Bianca’s climactic speech is a bit on the nose, even if the message doesn’t get any better for a movie aimed at teens. The film sorely needs some more gal-pal moments between Bianca and her BFFs; their devoted friendship is the one thing Whitman can’t sell, especially when Bianca begins to spend all her screen time with Wesley. But there’s no doubt that “The DUFF” is clever, funny and quotable enough to become this decade’s “Mean Girls.” Watch your back, Regina George — thereis a new queen bee in town. Read more.
Genevieve Koski, The Dissolve
Bianca’s self-destructive behavior could read as oblivious at best, stupid at worst, were Whitman not such a naturally likable and funny performer. She gives Bianca a self-aware edge without completely undercutting her teenage naïveté, and her chemistry with the similarly likable Amell gives their improbable partnership a charge that lends some credence to their relationship’s obvious trajectory. Also helping matters: Allison Janney as Bianca’s mom, a divorcée-turned-self-help-maven who spouts useless, pun-based platitudes that are of no help to Bianca (or, arguably, anyone), but help highlight the no-win nature of her situation. Read more.
Sheri Linden, The Hollywood Reporter
Working from the young-adult novel by Kody Keplinger (herself a teen when she wrote it), screenwriter Josh A. Cagenfinds a middle ground between YA sermonizing and mild cheekiness, and director Ari Sandel inflects his narrative feature debut with the requisite speed-of-the-Internet social media component, energetic but hardly anarchic. He and his behind-the-camera collaborators give the production a generic sheen. Though the feature will be at a disadvantage against the name power of the weekend’s other wide releases, its central pair of unlikely allies will engage young audiences’ sympathy. They’re smartly played by Mae Whitman and Robbie Amell, whose warmth and comic chops keep the movie buoyant. Read more.
Amy Nicholson, The Village Voice
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. Read more.
Katie Rife, The A.V. Club
To Whitman’s credit, she commits to the scene, as she does to all of the movie’s ADHD-friendly visual flourishes. This is her film, and she seems determined not to waste her chance at being a leading lady. The supporting cast is unfortunately less convincing—Ken Jeong turns in an uncharacteristically low-energy performance as a sensitive English teacher, and Allison Janney isn’t quite credible either as Whitman’s mother or as a motivational speaker, her ostensible occupation. Read more.
Kyle Smith, The New York Post
High-school movies usually have as much to do with high school as “Godzilla” does with Tokyo. “The DUFF” is slightly radical in portraying high schoolers as human beings of normal niceness and intelligence. That means this winsome comedy is a little low in the stakes department, not to mention predictable, but it gets an “A” for charm. Read more.