I have noted in previous reviews of post-John Hughes teen movies the tiredness of the requisite sequence in which a character explains all the various subgroups of the high school social system and where they congregate. "This is where the jocks hang out these are the math geeks here are the burn-outs etc., etc." There is exactly such a scene in Mean Girls, a sharp comedy written by Tina Fey, but it works because the rigidly stratified social caste system inhabited by typical middle-class teenagers is not just used as a familiar backdrop for a romance, but rather as the subject of the movie itself. For all its hilarity (and there is a lot), Mean Girls is primarily a fascinatingly adroit dissection of high school culture.
Lindsey Lohan (Freaky Friday) stars as Cady (pronounced like "Katie"), who, until the age of 16, has been homeschooled and lived in Africa with her zoologist parents. Thus, when she wades into the deep waters of high school for the first time in Evanston, Illinois, she is literally entering into a whole new world (when asked about Ashton Kutcher, she says, "Is that a band?"). The first friends she meets are a pair of outsiders: Janis (Lizzy Caplan), a sarcastic Goth chick, and her best friend Damian (Daniel Franzese), who's affable, overweight, and, as Janis puts it, "almost too gay to function." However, because Cady is pretty, she is invited into the world of "The Plastics," three beautiful teenage "queen bees" who rule the roost through intimidation and fear. They are a perfect example of how the term "popular" when applied to high school culture is one of the greatest misnomers in the English language-it has nothing to do with being liked and everything to do with being feared.
Janis, who has her own personal axe to grind, convinces Cady to go "undercover" into the world of the Plastics and report back about what they talk about. At first, Cady is game, and she has fun living the glamorous life of a Plastic while still keeping grounded with her real friends. However, what Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in the perennial high school lit class favorite The Scarlet Letter about becoming confused when wearing one face to yourself and another to the multitude is as true for teenage girls as it is for guilt-ridden priests. Cady cannot resist the lure of all that is plastic, and soon enough she is more interested in short skirts, high heels, lip gloss, losing weight, and, most importantly, scamming on the cutest guy in school than getting good grades or remembering who her true friends are.
Tina Fey, who at the time was the head writer for Saturday Night Live, used Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, a well-researched handbook for parents about the intricate workings of "Girl World," to lay the foundation for Mean Girls. Unlike many teen movies, there is real sense of understanding here about the malicious ways in which teenage girls bully each other. While boys tend to lash out at each other physically, girls go after each other emotionally, and Fey (who also has a role as a likable math teacher) perfectly captures the nastiness of this facet of teenage life, from the trivial to the devastating. Director Mark Waters (who previously directed Lohan in Disney's Freaky Friday remake) keeps the tone lighthearted and just barely to the left of pure satire so that we can identify and sympathize with the characters, but also enjoy the inherent comedy of adolescent backstabbing.
Fey gives Cady a clever voice-over narration that treats her daily adventures like an ethnographic experience. As she has virtually no idea what life is like inside a typical American high school, Cady is literally a blank slate who needs to learn all the in's and out's that most kids take for granted by age 16. This is a brilliant narrative conceit because it allows us a crucial bit of distance from something that we've seen dozens and dozens of times on screen, and that distance is just enough to make it seem fresh and interesting. There's really nothing new in Mean Girls-everything it exposes has been exposed before. Yet, because we're seeing it all through the wide, just-learning eyes of a sympathetic outsider-turned-insider protagonist, everything can be viewed from just a slightly different angle. Because Cady grew up in Africa with zoologist parents, she sees high school life in parallel terms with animal life on the African savannah, and twice the film makes this explicit by comically moving into a fantasy view of teenagers' inner animals literally coming out roaring.
As good as the basic structure of the movie is, it ultimately works because of all the little details. This is a movie about teenagers that, despite some comic exaggeration, feels lived in. There are observations about partying, student/teacher relationships, missing-in-action parents, and the ways in which girls overcriticize their own bodies that are simultaneously funny and almost disturbingly eye-opening in their recognizable honesty. Because it is an out-and-out comedy, Mean Girls doesn't have the dramatic resonance of something like My So-Called Life (1994"95), but it also doesn't have the flattened Hollywood simplicity of so many teen movies that are clearly written by people who have forgotten what it was like to be 16. The movie it most closely resembles is the blackly comedic Heathers (1989), albeit without that movie's single-minded satirical viciousness. Mean Girls does have its outr moments, such as when a crucial character gets hit by a bus, but overall its comedy derives from the movie's careful attention to the manners of its characters.
The performances by the young cast are excellent all around. Lohan, who was already a familiar face in teen movies, makes her evolution from nave waif to cunning Plastic convincing without sacrificing her character's humanity. As Regina George, the snarky leader of the Plastics, Rachel McAdams cuts an imposing figure who never quite sinks into an easily hated villainess. And that is a crucial part of what makes Mean Girls stand out: It doesn't point fingers in only one direction. Regina is certainly the worst of the worst, but as the movie makes clear, there's a little bit of manipulative and cruel Regina in every girl in the school, and it's only because she's beautiful, wealthy, and ambitious that she has risen to the top of the malevolent heap. In a way, Mean Girls is a modern, gender-bended riff on that other high school lit staple, William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, but with backstabbing, boyfriend-stealing, gossip, and three-way calling ambushes replacing spears and rocks as the weapons of choice for the teenage cutthroats.
Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)