Opening this weekend:
The DUFF—Bianca, the heroine of the high school comedy The DUFF, is actually the title character. DUFF, you see, is an acronym for Designated Ugly Fat Friend. When Bianca has the term applied to her, she realizes that her best pals Casey and Jessica are two of the school hotties, while she’s a frump with a snarky sense of humor who loves horror movies (where were all the girls like this when I was in high school?). She finds herself wondering if her purpose in the trio is to make Casey and Jessica look even cuter by comparison.
She promptly freaks out, cuts off relations with her friends, and strikes a deal with the swaggering jock next door to help her gain confidence and style. The object of these tutorials is to get a date with her crush, a guitar-strumming pretty-boy to whom she is—literally—unable to say three words.
In other words, in terms of theme and plot, we’re on standard John Hughes teen comedy turf here. Indeed, The DUFF is so self-consciously of the Hughes School that it has a Breakfast Club reference in the first line of the narration, and it goes on to ring its own variations on the obligatory scenes of the genre: the Big Suburban Party, the Big Dance Climax, the Cafeteria Scene in which high school social stereotypes are broken down anthropologically.
The DUFF is more charming than all this makes it sound. The script, by Josh A. Cagan (from Kody Keplinger’s novel), isn’t without some heavy platitudes and some clumsily trendy references to social media, but the best of its dialogue is crudely, bluntly funny, and it has a generous streak—it’s immediately clear to the audience, for instance, that Bianca’s misjudged Casey and Jessica. Ari Sandel’s direction zips along swiftly, and while there are poorly-timed gags that don’t come off, most of them land skillfully.
The true strength of the movie, however, is the acting. As usual in such films, there are some slumming character players as the grown-ups, like Allison Janney as Bianca’s distracted motivational-speaker Mom, Romany Malco as the wound-up Principal and Ken Jeong and Chris Wylde as daffy teachers. Robbie Amell is brashly likable as the Jock Next Door, and Bella Thorne is effective as the mean-girl villainess.
But the film is really a showcase for Mae Whitman as Bianca. Having seen the TV ads for this movie, I’ll admit I walked in with a chip—Whitman, who has the droll adorableness of a slightly less elfin Ellen Page, seemed to conform to the usual convention in a film with an “ugly duckling” heroine. And as with other movies of this sort, the makers of The DUFF didn’t seem to get that preaching to us about how everyone is beautiful in their own way while refusing, for box-office reasons, to cast an actress who really might be seen as unattractive or overweight is an offensive attempt to have it both ways.
But Whitman’s performance broke me down on this preconceived point. A former child actress, she’s a veteran of more than twenty years in show business—among many, many other roles, she’s the current voice of Disney’s Tinkerbell. Yet as Bianca she transcends her own showbiz slickness—for all her sitcom timing, she has an emotional directness to which you can feel the audience respond.
The Last Five Years—Jamie is a young writer who sells a novel and hits it big. His girlfriend Cathy is a struggling New York stage actress who doesn’t, or at least hasn’t, yet. They’re played by Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick, respectively, in this movie version of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, which premiered in Chicago in 2001 and Off-Broadway in 2002, and has since been produced all over the world.
In the play, a two-hander, Cathy sings her side of the story backwards from the break-up, while we get Jamie’s side forward, from the happy early days. The two strands pass each other in the middle. This ingenious structure is weakened in the movie, adapted and directed by Richard LaGravenese. Kendrick and Jordan sing to each other, and a few other actors—little more than bit players—are shooed past the camera as well, and I, at least, lost track at times of where we were in the five-year ordeal.
But I didn’t mind that much, because Brown’s songs are pretty and witty, and prettily and wittily sung, in the clarion belter style of contemporary musicals. A good thing the score is so strong, too, because the story, stripped of the sometimes thrilling music, is just the autopsy of a typical neurotic on-again-off-again relationship, perfectly believable but not much less tiresome than listening to some friend recount five years’ worth of marital troubles in bitter detail.
Such troubles are greatly improved by good singing, though. When the movie was over, I found myself thinking that I’d rather buy the soundtrack and listen to it while driving instead of having to watch the resentments and envies and deceptions of these two.
Both of the actors are impressive, but Anna Kendrick’s rise as musical performer, starting with the improbable chart success of her “cup song” from Pitch Perfect through her roles in Into the Woods and this movie, continues to tickle. Her voice has strength alongside a plangent, comically plaintive beauty. Once it looked like Kendrick might go down in movie history as the best friend in the Twilight flicks. But maybe the Twilight flicks will go down in movie history as Kendrick’s apprenticeship before she became a singing star.