From the start, I want to make one thing totally clear:
Why am I emphasizing the issue so much? Because, quite frankly, I know how the film looks from the ads. You’ve got teen star Lindsey Lohan, plentiful shots of fashionably dressed girls walking down a school hallway, and trendy music playing in the background. From the commercials, you could easily confuse this with Lohan’s recent flick Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen or any film starring Hilary Duff, Mandy Moore, or the Olson twins. In other words, you could believe that this movie is not for you. Assuming such a thing would be a mistake because Mean Girls is the smartest, funniest, most observant comedy about teenagers in a long time. And it’s not just for kids.
Lohan stars as Cady Heron, a girl who has been home schooled for most of her life while her zoologist parents worked in Africa. Upon returning to the States, Cady enters school for the first time at North Shore High School just outside Chicago. On her first day, she meets two outcasts, a goth chick named Janice (Lizzy Caplan) and a homosexual boy named Damian (Daniel Franzese). They’re the only ones who are nice to her, so they quickly become friends. Then Cady is summoned by the most popular girl in school, Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Regina is the “queen bee” in a group of perky, pretty little princesses known as “the Plastics.” The other members are ditzy Karen (Amanda Seyfried) and neurotic Gretchen (Lacey Chabert). The Plastics have a lot of rules, such as that members can never be seen in sweatpants.
Janice has always had a hatred of Regina in particular, so she convinces Cady to hang out with the Plastics as a subversive way of making fun of the group. Cady is initially appalled by the girls, who connive and gossip about everyone. Then Regina pulls a power play to tear Cady away from Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), a boy she is attracted to. In the Plastics’ circle, who you like has to be approved (and Regina doesn’t want Cady dating her ex-boyfriend). Humiliated by the situation, Cady pretends everything is cool but plans a Trojan Horse maneuver by internally sabotaging the group. She pits the other members against each other and gives the dieting Regina weight gain bars to eat. Before long, Cady has replaced Regina as the queen bee, which of course means that she has become the very thing she originally despised.
Believe it or not, Mean Girls is based on a non-fiction sociological study by Rosalind Wiseman called “Queen Bees and Wannabes.” I haven’t read the book, but it’s clear that the film takes it idea more seriously than might otherwise be expected. Rather than settling for the level of dopey teen comedy, this is a very intelligent look at the way teenager girls compete with each other – especially the ones they’re closest to. What’s astounding is not only the casualness with which the Plastics dismiss their peers, but also the fact that they don’t seem to like each other a whole lot better. Even Cady, who is initially so appalled by their cruel ways, has her own style of being mean. The thing that makes this behavior so awful is that all the characters find ways of justifying what they do. It’s not mere snobbery at work; it’s a failed attempt at increasing personal self-esteem by knocking others down a peg. It’s really kind of sad that this has become such a common way of making yourself feel better.
The screenplay was written by Tina Fey, the very funny head writer for “Saturday Night Live” (as well as the co-host of “Weekend Update”). She slyly plays with the conventions of teen films. You know the obligatory scene in which all the cliques are pointed out in the cafeteria? In this movie, the cliques are more unusual, such as the “Horny Band Geeks.” Fey also has a supporting role as math teacher Ms. Norbury. Near the end of the film, when a “burn book” filled with lies and vicious comments about female students appears, Ms. Norbury steps up to the plate and provides a handy lesson on the dangers of dissing other people. It’s a really sophisticated moment for a film in this genre. Tim Meadows (portraying the school principal) is another prominent character in this scene. He gets one of the picture’s biggest laughs as he attempts to address a gymnasium full of young women.
Lindsey Lohan as appeared in other movies, such as Freaky Friday, The Parent Trap, and of course the recent Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen. She’s more or less been lined up as one of Hollywood’s new teen queens, but Mean Girls, I think, establishes her as a genuine actress. Without going overboard or lapsing into clichés, Lohan makes Cady’s transition believable and – more importantly – interesting. She’s really good here. I don’t usually like to draw comparisons between an actor’s role and his/her personal life, but if you’ve heard about Lohan’s feud with fellow teen star Hilary Duff, it’s hard not to believe that she had some personal experience to draw on. Whatever she used, it worked.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Mean Girls is that is doesn’t see things only in black or white. There aren’t really “good” characters or “bad” ones. There are just a lot of kids who have bought into a generation’s apparent ideal that the best virtue in life is to be “cooler” than everyone else. Mean Girls is a biting satire of adolescent cattiness and cruelty. I hope teenagers will see through the laughs and get the message. I also hope that adults won’t shrug the film off. If you’ve ever had someone say something nasty about you behind your back – or if you’ve ever been guilty of doing it to someone else – then the movie should definitely hit a few of the right buttons.
( 1/2 out of four)
Mean Girls is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some teen partying. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
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