The premise of The DUFF is taken from a novel published in 2010, but it feels two decades older than that. DUFF, you see, stands for “designated ugly fat friend”; the kind of jokey attempt at anthropological analysis of high schoolers that went out of fashion around Mean Girls. The film’s titular DUFF is Bianca – or “B” – played by Mae Whitman, who navigates a high school environment that’s a blend of She’s All That, The Breakfast Club and Ten Things I Hate About You through a creaky, clichéd screenplay that hits its rom-com beats so predictably you could set your watch by it.
Despite the datedness, it’s actually kinda…good? Partly this is because it makes a real effort to update the ‘90s-era teen film with social media; it could have felt gimmicky, but aside from a weak cyberbullying subplot featuring Romany Malco, it largely succeeds. But The DUFF’s not-so-secret weapon is Whitman (her?), who singlehandedly saves the film from hackneyed drudgery with a charismatic, unexpectedly deep performance. Despite being a good eight years older than her character, she embodies the oh-so-teenage challenge of charting a new identity in hostile territory – whether it’s a high school hallway or a dated rom-com.