Here’s hoping that this doesn’t start a trend among already-beleaguered teens. The premise here is that “The Duff” is the person in your group who is the “designated ugly fat friend.” She’s the one with a bubbly personality, is somewhat geeky but approachable, and therefore is an important gateway to her better-looking friends. If you’re a hot football player, say, and you want to know if the pretty head cheerleader might be “into you,” then you approach The Duff and inquire of her. That way you’ve got a layer of insulation against rejection. The further premise here is that high school guys also operate under a similar unspoken social hierarchy (but this movie isn’t about them).
Veteran child actress Mae Whitman plays Bianca, whose best friend actually is the boy next door, Wesley (Robbie Amell). Though the viewers immediately realize their emotional connection, she doesn’t. She thinks she is part of the cool chick clique at school, the popular tandem of Casey and Jess, and so far she hasn’t realized that, actually, she’s The Duff. Until Wesley tells her.
Now she’s completely bummed out. She thought Casey and Jess were her friends, but Bianca can simply look in the mirror and realize how close this is to the truth. (Actually, Ms. Whitman is neither fat enough nor ugly enough for this part, but this is about perception, not reality.)
There are some really creative moments in this film, especially the part about applying portable labels to the students as they sit in classrooms or walk down the halls. The caricatures of certain cliques (Goth, Glee Club, Jocks, Nerds) are universally recognizable. But unfortunately nearly everyone is a caricature, and sometimes not a very convincing one. The prototypical “Mean Girl” seems to possess an exalted social position even though we hear nothing but ugly invective coming out of her mouth. The so-called quarterback has a limp throwing motion that indicates he couldn’t hit a receiver more than five yards away. The quirky sense of humor sometimes works, especially the heroine’s charming self-deprecation, but there’s way too much egregious gutter slang and sex talk in the dialogue to recommend this to church youth groups.
And the ending has certainly been done before: Yes, it’s the boy next door who really loves her, but first she has to learn to accept herself, and quit trying to be somebody she’s not in order to impress everyone else. That’s certainly a worthy moral to the story, but here’s hoping the concept of The Duff doesn’t cause as much wrenching self-doubt and chaotic social confusion in nationwide teen circles as it does in this film.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.