Blu-ray Review: The Duff (2015)

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Alternate Title: The DUFF

A whip-smart honor roll student with a killer sense of humor – in the real world, a girl like cult film fanatic Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) has an awful lot to offer.

Unfortunately in the superficial world of high school where cliques rule the hallways and yearbook labels like "Best Hair" or "Biggest Flirt" reign supreme, even Bianca knows that right now, the thing she's probably best known for is having the hottest friends.

What she wasn't prepared for, however, was the realization that – in the cutthroat social hierarchy of prom kings and queens – fulfilling this role as the "gatekeeper" to her more beautiful friends makes her a "duff" by comparison.

As shocked as she is saddened by the acronym which she soon discovers stands for "designated ugly fat friend," after she lashes out at her two equally clueless, loyal gal pals, Bianca decides that the best way to get over the five stages of duff is to confront the label head-on.

Hoping to climb up the ladder from "duff" to "datable" in time for homecoming, Bianca enlists the help of Wesley, her oldest childhood friend turned jock next door (played by Robbie Amell) who'd been the one with the foolish guts to tell it to her straight by persuading him to "un-duff her."

Although unwilling to get involved at first, when he finds out he's close to flunking science, Wesley soon agrees to Bianca's terms to ensure that he can remain in scholarship contention as the football team's MVP.

Arranging a field trip to the mall where he puts his years of watching Project Runway and dating 10s to good use, Wesley challenges Bianca to build up her confidence by daring the wallflower to strike up casual conversations with dozens of guys.

Far more creative and clever than a mere fashion montage, in spite of the fact that obviously there's one of those as well since it's a necessary evil when it comes to the subgenre of high school Pygmalion movies, overall it's little surprises like this that continually set The Duff apart from start to finish.

Fresh, fast-paced, and fiercely quotable, the film which is based on Kody Keplinger's beloved best-selling novel was adapted by screenwriter Josh A. Cagan, who'd proven his artistic ingenuity a few years back while working on the underrated teen sleeper Bandslam.

Exploring the same terrain of the high school caste system that made the still topical Breakfast Club an instant contemporary classic thirty years ago, The Duff wholeheartedly embraces the generations of genre favorites that came before it.

The latest in a long line of makeover-centric teen movies from Grease to She's All That, Cagan builds his script around the hallmarks of the genre from the dream boy to the penultimate dance without simply spoofing the titles or sending them up.

Platonic but with potential, while the relationship between the popular kid and the duff is a refreshing new twist on the same dynamic that made the gender-reversal romance Some Kind of Wonderful work so well, it's too bad that it's at the expense of the other characters who feel less fleshed out this time around.

Helmed by Oscar winner Ari Sandel who took home the statue in 2007 for his innovative live action short West Bank Story, although at times it's hard to deny that Sandel could've done a much better job at reeling in some of his comedic performers' painfully broad antics, thankfully the film is just so darn likable that any scenery chewing is easy to forgive.

And while it lacks the character development worthy of the talented ensemble cast including Allison Janney who had a similar scene-stealing role in 10 Things I Hate About You, The Duff gets credit for touching on more complex issues including cyber bullying and the perils of social media that make the terrain so tricky to navigate for teens today both on and offscreen.

Thematically and structurally similar to the films of John Hughes, despite its modern touches, part of The Duff's charm is its timeless feel.

Likewise, similar to the way that its characters defy any labels that cross their path, The Duff manages to defy genre expectations as one of the sharpest and most genuinely affable teen comedies of the '00s, not only taking its place alongside Mean Girls, Juno, Easy A, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower but also standing proud and strong on its own.

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