Teenage girls can be red in tooth and claw, in case you hadn’t gotten the pop-culture memo. Films like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen and books like Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees & Wannabes have thrown a harsh light on teen girls’ yearning for acceptance and struggles with self-esteem; Tina Fey, head writer on Saturday Night Live, read Wiseman’s book, and Fey’s resulting screenplay was so inspired by Queen Bees that Wiseman gets a screen credit. Mean Girls, which opened with surprisingly big numbers, may tap into the same zeitgeist that seeks to decode the unhappy daughters of a new generation. It’s also considerably witty, with freshly conceived characters and a baroquely structured plot.
Lindsay Lohan, whose popularity may be part of the reason for Mean Girls‘ success, is Cady Heron, a homeschooled girl attending a public school for the first time. Cady doesn’t know the social rules of high school, though her new friends, outcast “art freaks” Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese), waste no time filling her in. Tina Fey, who is Class of 1988 like me, must’ve been as relieved — and as dispirited — as I was to learn that high-school cliques haven’t changed much in fifteen years. The Queen Bee clique, derisively known as The Plastics, are a trio of well-appointed brats — airhead Karen (Amanda Seyfried), eager-to-please Gretchen (Lacey Chabert), and ringleader Regina (Rachel McAdams). They take notice of Cady, and Regina invites her into the fold, with Janis’ enthusiastic approval — Cady is in the perfect covert-op position to report back to Janis on the Plastics’ vapidity.
Mean Girls is not just for teenage girls. For one thing, Fey and producer Lorne Michaels have brought along some fellow SNL talent — Tim Meadows as the grouchy school principal, Ana Gasteyer as Cady’s anthropologist mom (her line “Why are my tribal vases under the sink?” is one of Fey’s finer moments as a writer), and the incomparable Amy Poehler as Regina’s mom, a teenage daughter’s worst nightmare — the mom who wants to be one of the girls. This is perhaps the smartest film Michaels has had his name on; Cady is a math whiz, and the movie doesn’t shy away from showing actual examples of her knowledge. Fey wants girls to know it’s okay to be smart, and the subplot in which Cady dumbs herself down to win the affection of a hunky senior (Jonathan Bennett) is a good instance of Fey’s unstressed message.
Elsewhere, particularly towards the finish, the script gets a little preachier. Fey herself, in the role of Cady’s calculus teacher, stands in front of an auditorium full of girls and makes a speech: “You’ve got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it all right for guys to call you that.” An inarguable sentiment, but it veers too close to a PSA for me, as does Cady’s later revelation, “Calling somebody else fat will not make you any thinner. Calling somebody stupid will not make you any smarter.” These points have already pretty much been made; the Plastics are supercilious and unappealing (though the actresses play them wittily), and Cady herself devolves under their tutelage. As Nietzsche said (or maybe not), “Battle not with Plastics, lest ye become one.”
Except for head Plastic Regina, and an oafish Health Ed teacher who somehow feels qualified to lecture about chlamydia while misspelling it, all the characters are generously drawn; there’s a lovely moment when Janis, of uncertain sexual preference, and Damien, whom Janis has described as “almost too gay to function,” go to the prom together in matching suits. Mean Girls manages to be light-hearted without being light-headed; as noted above, it has a little too much on its agenda, but that’s better than having nothing on its mind at all. And it announces the arrival of Tina Fey into the ranks of smart screenwriters (she’s a pretty good comic actress, too — she has a wonderfully tart exchange with Lindsay Lohan over the contents of a secret “Burn Book” that trashes everyone in school). The movie’s success should pave the way for future Fey projects, and in this dumb, retrograde time for movies, Fey is more than welcome — she’s needed.