A great teen movie is a rare find, largely because grown-up filmmakers have forgotten what it's like to be their own audience. They pander or condescend -- or worse, try to "relate" -- rather than respect the intelligence of young moviegoers. It isn't an easy task, and lately the studios have all but stopped trying. On screen, real-world teenagers have been replaced by fantasy counterparts who fight supervillains or bring down dystopian regimes.
Seemingly out of nowhere comes "The DUFF," a terrific, authentic teen movie in the John Hughes tradition. Its heroine is Bianca (Mae Whitman, NBC's "Parenthood"), a high-school senior who learns that she's known as the Designated Ugly Fat Friend -- or DUFF -- to her smoking-hot pals Jess and Casey (Skyler Samuels and Bianca A. Santos). Against all odds, and despite the best efforts of cyberbullying mean-queen Madison (Bella Thorne), Bianca is determined to shed her cruel nickname. Her unlikely mentor will be the very guy who gave it to her -- Wesley (Robbie Amell), the impossibly hunky football captain.
Despite that rom-com premise, "The DUFF" has an unmistakable ring of truth. It's based on a novel by 17-year-old Kody Keplinger (now 23), but the sharp script by Josh A. Cagan and fun-loving direction by Ari Sandel also help. Grown-up actors like Ken Jeong, as Bianca's journalism teacher, and Allison Janney, as her divorced mom, add color and contrast to the teen world. It's the two leads, however, who make this movie shine.
There's no way to overestimate Whitman's charm as Bianca, a smart, quirky girl who somehow never got the memo about playing dumb to get the guys. She still wears pajama bottoms to school, uses unladylike language, cracks up at dumb jokes and is absolutely endearing. Amell has the trickier role as Wesley, a seemingly shallow hunk with hidden depths, but he develops a sparkling chemistry with Whitman. Their banter is so easy and natural (and frequently saucy) that we're very quickly dying to see these two act on their attraction.
"The DUFF" hits some predictable beats but never strikes a false note, and its messages of empowerment and self-esteem feel heartfelt. Those are qualities that moviegoers of any age will be glad to find.