The Duff, directed by Ari Sandel and based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, will bring you back to familiar moments of invisibility (and worse, unasked for visibility). The film stars Mae Whitman as Bianca Piper, the “DUFF”—designated ugly fat friend—who is cyber-bullied by the popular girl (played by a wicked sharp Bella Thorne) when she is seen with the popular guy, Wesley, played by Robbie Amell, a social role deemed too big for her average appearance.
Although The Duff’s drab-to glam, stick-it-to-the-popular-kids plot has been well-rehearsed by essentially every high school drama in the history of cinema, Sandel still manages to traverse uncharted territory in the film’s clever and biting commentary on the quirks of American youth culture in the 21st century. At the beginning of the film, Bianca likes eating pizza while watching horror movies and wearing unflattering sports bras. Bianca is not ugly or fat, like the term duff demands—it’s just that she isn’t long and slim à la Hepburn.
Her arms and thighs have flab—and you see it shake on screen! But no matter how many times we repeat that she is so beautiful in her own way, in the eyes of her classmates, Bianca Piper is a DUFF, and people pay her less attention because she doesn’t look or carry herself as strikingly beautiful or sexy, not even in an alternative, goth-chic, Kat Dennings kind of way.
Whitman’s performance is both endearing and powerful, perfectly depicting the cringe-worthy strife of an awkward teenaged girl trying to find love while still maintaining a modern feminist sensibilities. Bianca is foul-mouthed and does not shy away from the idea of sexuality, on several occasions passionately disclosing her sexual fantasies featuring her various crushes. Essentially, the character of Bianca gives the bird to traditional notions of a well-mannered, lady-like, chaste female protagonist.
Despite the fact that the movie largely revolves around Bianca’s love interests as well as her quest for physical transformation, thankfully, she refrains from pulling a Sandra Dee and never loses sight of her self in the process. Her desire for transformation remains independent of the desires others have of her.
In this way, The Duff is wonderfully different from that other caterpillar-to-butterfly classic, Mean Girls, where the protagonist Cady Heron is slim, big-breasted, tall, made-up, and transforms into a goddess just by wearing a pink miniskirt instead of earth tones.
The DUFF can’t measure up to the rapid-fire complex humor of Mean Girls, but it focuses directly and entertainingly on how American society’s typical body-positive narrative pretends that “standards of American beauty” don’t matter when, in fact, physical appearances remain influential in determining an individual’s self image and social role.
Throughout the film, Bianca doesn’t stop depending on people’s opinions of her. She ultimately finds confidence—a confidence that is based in a recapturing of her own look and an ownership of her appearance—in other people paying attention to her.
Sandel illustrates wonderfully and kindly that this day comes only when we find a way to present ourselves to the world that rings true. In their very different ways, Bianca’s personal journey can remind us of this. The Duff is an important movie and pretty cute, too. It must have a lot of self-confidence.