In this high-concept teen movie, Mae Whitman is Bianca, an apparently smart high school girl who just happens to have two "hot babes" as best friends. She is oblivious to her status as designated ugly fat friend (the Duff in question) until this fact is helpfully pointed out by her hottie jock neighbour, Wesley (played by Robbie Amell). From then on, Bianca goes into freefall, ditching her two good-looking friends - but strangely not her neighbour, whose help she enlists to help her ensnare school heartthrob Toby. Cue makeover! This entails turning the style-free Bianca into a streetwalker - which is where this film left me high and dry.
For this mildly diverting high-school comedy, screenwriter Josh Cagan splices together two successful John Hughes movies, namely Pretty In Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. But strangely manages to leave out the charm of either film. There are some funny moments, however. When Bianca ditches her friends, she does so by social media ex-communication - with one friend telling her, "They were just pity retweets, anyway". And then when Wesley takes Bianca on a shopping trip, two German sales assistants take her aside to deal with her 'unabooben".
The film's humour, however, is largely down to its superb cast, which is better than this script deserves. As Bianca's teacher Mr Arthur, Ken Jeong is especially good, while Alison Janney is largely wasted as Bianca's mother, a fortysomething divorcee who reinvents herself as a peppy life coach.
The Duff comes together in the end with its message of acceptance, but it takes its time getting there - and has a disturbing message for girls and young women. Being who you are is fine - as long as it involves dressing and acting like a porn star, apparently.
Bianca is supposed to be smart and clever but we see little evidence of either. And she's supposed to be a good writer - but we don't see her write anything until the end of the film. Screenwriter Cagan has clearly seen 10 Things I Hate About You and Mean Girls, but it's interesting to note that both these films were written by women - Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith, while 30 Rock star Tina Fey was the writer of Mean Girls. What these two films had was heart and the ring of authenticity - both are sadly lacking from The Duff. Bianca inhabits a world where everyone is comfortably middle class - every teen drives and has at least one mobile phone.
And there's the rub - I don't know who this film is likely to appeal to. The characters are too sketchily drawn for girls to fully engage with the story (I forgot the names of all but the lead character in The Duff as soon as I walked out of the cinema, but I can still remember all the characters' names from the 2004 film, Mean Girls), while the subject matter is likely to deter young male viewers - unless they have a girlfriend in tow.
Somehow I can't imagine anyone watching this movie in twenty-odd years. Now where's my John Hughes box set?