I can’t say that I was surprised to find myself enjoying Mean Girls; the re-teaming of the Freaky Friday team of director Mark Waters and star Lindsay Lohan alone suggested something worth watching. I was surprised, though, by how much I enjoyed it — to the degree that I want to see it again, and soon.
The trailer made it obvious that Mean Girls was designed to move Lohan out of the realm of Disney and into the cinematic mainstream. As such, the film was bound to feel a little transitional — a bridge for its star out of teen flicks and into the world of adults, yet without ever really crossing that proverbial river. It was particularly clever to give Lohan a vehicle that advanced her to the level of playing a realistic teenager who literally moves out of a fantasized, protective world and into the real one.
Just as Lohan is stepping outside of the Disney-machine cocoon, so, too, does her character, Cady Heron, leave the safety of a home-school environment in Africa for the perils of a real high school in Illinois. It’s a great strategy for a film, but it’s the sharpness of the writing by Saturday Night Live‘s Tina Fey and the direction of Waters that make it all work.
Mean Girls isn’t five minutes old before it boldly cuts to vignettes depicting what Cady thinks most home-schooled kids are like: either frighteningly brainy, or else “weirdly religious” (as depicted by a backwoods kid announcing, “And on the third day, God created the Remin’ton bolt-action rifle, so that man could protect himself against the dinosaurs — and the homosaxshuls”). We’re immediately aware that we’re watching a movie that isn’t afraid to take a risk or two. And while most of these indulgences work, a few don’t (the depiction of high-school kids as jungle animals wears a little thin); yet the break from straightforward storytelling is in itself refreshing.
The film’s basic premise reads like a standard teen comedy, but its development is something else entirely; and while Mean Girls keeps getting near the usual contrivances that mark such films, it constantly sidesteps them, or else puts a new spin on them.
When Cady enters the strange world of high school, she finds herself taken under the wing of goth outcast Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan, Orange County) and flamboyant Damian (Daniel Franzese, Party Monster), whom Janis characterizes as “too gay to function.” The plot thickens when the snobbish clique known as “The Plastics” takes an interest in Cady. Janis, it turns out, is nursing a long-held grudge against their leader, Regina George (Rachel McAdams, The Hot Chick), and sees this as an opportunity for Cady to infiltrate the group and help bring them down.
It comes as no surprise that at first Cady can’t see what’s wrong with Regina and her circle, but learns the truth when Regina sets her up with her old boyfriend, Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett, Season of Youth), only to undermine Cady and take him back herself. It’s also no great shock that Cady — even with revenge on her mind — gets sucked into the appeal of being a “Plastic,” and slowly turns into the very sort of person she dislikes. What is surprising is that the screenplay allows her to recognize what is happening, and yet be unable to stop herself.
There’s a precision and an uncanny sense of insider knowledge at work here that causes Mean Girls to be at once a very funny comedy and a startlingly perceptive look at life in high school. Comparisons with Michael Lehmann’s overrated Heathers are inevitable, but the two films are actually quite dissimilar. Mean Girls doesn’t rely on an extreme — and somewhat improbable — plot, and it doesn’t have to chicken out to make its ending work. And where Heathers relies on caricatures, Mean Girls is grounded in characters. Even when they’re obviously exaggerated, everyone in the latter film is clearly recognizable as a person.
Sure, Mean Girls‘ adults are generally ineffectual, distracted or downright ignorant — Cady’s dad (Neil Flynn, Magnolia) grounds her without realizing this means she isn’t supposed to go out; the school principal (SNL‘s Tim Meadows) won’t cancel the big dance simply because he’s already paid for the DJ — but they retain a sense of simple humanity. Best of all, Mean Girls is just plain entertaining, and very funny. It’s a movie that ought to make its star’s on-screen transition to adulthood an easy one.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke