That'll learn 'em

'The DUFF' schools students on self-esteem

"What do people think of me?" is the uber-question of high school movies, usually paired with an even more important one: "What do I think of myself?" Pitched somewhere between "Mean Girls" and "She's All That," "The DUFF" returns to these questions in a manner that's contrived and predictable, but also pretty entertaining.

That's largely due to the charismatic performances of two actors best known for their TV work: Mae Whitman ("Parenthood"), on whose capable shoulders the film rests, and Robbie Amell ("The Tomorrow People"). (Yep, two 26-year-olds playing high-school seniors: another tradition of the genre.) Whitman plays Bianca, a contentedly dorky gal whose high-school survival tactics involve drafting her beautiful, fashionable and popular friends Jessica and Casey (Skyler Samuels and Bianca Santos). When Bianca's jock friend Wesley (Robbie Amell) insensitively lets slip to her that she's a "DUFF" (Designated Ugly Fat Friend), Bianca begins a paranoid rethink of her life, resolving to leave her DUFF-ness behind to win over dreamy musician Toby (Nick Eversman).

Naturally, this plan involves enlisting Wesley to coach her, and naturally -- well, anyone who's seen a romantic comedy can guess where this is going. Working from Kody Keplinger's novel, screenwriter Josh A. Cagan throws in a queen bee named Madison (genuine teen Bella Thorne) as a figure of greater influence than her fellow archetypes: school-paper moderator Mr. Arthur (a nicely restrained Ken Jeong) or Bianca's flighty mother (Allison Janney, always a pleasure). Cagan and director Ari Sandel work hard and fairly successfully at chasing the tone of Tina Fey's "Mean Girls," keeping the pace breezy and the gags plentiful.

Keplinger was seventeen when she published her novel, which struck a chord with readers. It's possible the film version of "The DUFF" will do the same with teen girls, if they can get past the casting of the healthy but hardly plus-sized Whitman, as well as the changes made to sanitize the book's approach to sex. Whitman's performance captures the spirit of the unpopular girl while giving her a breakout role showcasing her comic abilities and leading-lady potential; it's hard to imagine audiences resisting her charms if they make it into theaters. Amell's charms are more of the white-smile, great-bod variety (and the film misses no opportunity to flaunt those assets), but he also makes his character a recognizable and likeable type.

Crucially, Keplinger's central message -- that "we are all someone's DUFF," and we shouldn't give a rat's patoot about that -- remains intact."The DUFF" never risks its own broad-appeal popularity by being as bold or fresh as the likes of "Heathers," "Rushmore" or "Election," but for the dog days of February, it'll do just fine.

Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual material throughout, some language and teen partying. One hour, 40 minutes.


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