Labels are the worst thing in the world. That is, of course, until you learn to openly embrace them and accept your predestined slot in the grand scheme of things. All sarcasm aside, anyone who remembers RuPaul dressing down Tammie Brown in the first season of the always image-conscious Drag Race might recognize a tough kernel of truth in that logic. The new teen self-actualization primer disguised as a comedy, The Duff, milks owning your faults to, um, a fault.
Mae Whitman stars as Bianca, an acerbic, highly observant high schooler who’s got everyone’s number but her own. She’s quick with a hashtag, loves Lucio Fulci films as much as Juno loved Herschell Gordon Lewis, and has efficiently cloaked her insecurities within a force field of observational humor. When she’s informed by Wesley (Robbie Amell), her next door neighbor and childhood bestie who now gets along just fine as a “manwhore,” that the only reason her two closest friends, Casey and Jessica (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels), hang out with her is because they’re using her as their own Designated Ugly Fat Friend (or DUFF, per Urban Dictionary), it sends her into a tailspin of self-doubt.
The film deposits its heroine and everyone in the audience looking toward her for image-maintaining guidance back at square one.
The movie comes close to dealing with the idea that Bianca’s own rude awakening to her apparent black-sheep status is, in fact, something she’s always known subconsciously (to say nothing of her two hotter, more desirable friends’ hidden motivations), but doesn’t give itself any time to explore the socio-psychological implications behind that before Bianca ends up subjected to a gauntlet of cyber-bullying that would leave even Carrie White feeling pity for her. When Bianca turns to the only person in school she can trust, Wesley (because his brutal “honesty” makes him somehow more trustworthy in her eyes), it puts her onto the radar of Wesley’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Madison, a quintessential Mean Girl 2.0 (played by increasingly pigeonholed Disney ice princess Bella Thorne).
There’s really nothing particularly wrong with the film’s fundamental endorsement of embracing your inner DUFF, though in suggesting that basically everyone is a little bit of a DUFF at heart also means that technically no one is a DUFF. But even given the context of the film’s self-esteem battlefield, that practically all of Bianca’s moments of actualization arrive at the hands of everyone else in her life, most crucially the dumb but cute jock who routinely points out all of her flaws, deposits the heroine and everyone in the audience looking toward her for image-maintaining guidance back at square one.