As we are warned in the opening number of MEAN GIRLS, this is a cautionary tale of lust, greed, and corruption. What we are not warned about is the seductive power of being the eponymous Queen Bee of the high school clique hierarchy. That is the real story, though screenwriter Tina Fey, who co-stars as the ironic AP math teacher, may not have, ahem, spelled it out as such. It is, nonetheless, the forbidden fruit at the heart of this musical adaptation of the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, on which 2004’s non-musical, also called MEAN GIRLS, was based. We may revile that queen, here in the aptly monikered person of Regina George, (a suitably blonde and imposing Reneé Rapp), but the glamour she radiates and the absolute power she wields are the stuff of daydreams, but not the ones of which we are especially proud.
We view the natural habitat of the Queen Bee and her court through the eyes of Cady Heron (Angourie Rice), the new kid who has spent her life being homeschooled by her scientist mother (Jenna Fischer). In Africa. Cady may be a whiz at math, but nothing in the wilds of Africa have prepared her for the soul-crushing battleground that is high school. Walking in as a wide-eyed innocent eager for the company of other kids her age, she quickly discovers a brutal caste system that is not so innocently eager to place her at the bottom of the heap in an attempt to rise up in the hierarchy. The two outcasts, who make up the openly queer clique, take her on a Dante-esque tour of the social landscape, Janis ‘Imi’ike (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian Hubbard (Jaquel Spivey) warn her about Regina, North Shore High School’s Queen Bee, but Cady’s innocence mixed with the sort of spell Regina casts, not unlike that a cobra uses on its prey, cause those warnings to fall on deaf ears. When she is invited to have lunch at the exclusive cafeteria table, she can’t resist, and thus commences an education that has nothing to do with books.
Between the bubbly choreography that evokes the dangers of the African veldt coupled with the inner angst of teenagers in a pressure cooker, and the catchy songs with lyrics rife with black comedy, MEAN GIRLS has high energy and a wicked sense of humor and an even more wicked brand of smarts. Performed by a powerhouse cast that can belt out a song while not losing a dozen emotional shadings, it’s more than eye- or ear-candy. Rice has a range that effortlessly encompasses, ahem, clueless ingenue through Queen Bee and finally the wisdom of experience tempered with a pre-frontal cortex not yet fully attached to the rest of the brain. Her nemesis, Rapp, is the textbook definition of the film’s “plastics”, which is to say shiny, fake, and hard, with the unrestrained delight in demolishing everyone around her for the fun of it. Or the revenge of it. There is nothing coy about her retribution, which is as swift and final as a guillotine. Even when it’s her two cronies, the hopelessly, further ahem, clueless Karen Shetty (a gleefully confused Avantika), and Gretchen Wieners (a ferociously neurotic Bebe Wood).
Vengeance fuels the plot, with revelations of past wrongs Regina has visited upon Janis, and the de rigeur stealing of the cute boy (Christopher Briney) who was cast off by Regina, who still considers him her property. That part of the film is a delectable cornucopia of audience wish-fulfillment even as the awe in which Regina has everyone pricks at the angels of our better natures. It’s also what fuels the schadenfreude surrounding the outcasts plans to get even because it might cost one of them her soul.
This being a Tina Fey oeuvre, there is due consideration of what it means to be a smart girl in a world that values other things. Again, Fey is smart enough to make it the grace notes of a film that bounces along on self-deprecating wit and serious undertones that add emotional heft. The stakes are high, and the melodrama (as only high school can produce) even higher.