Much has been made of late about the culture of adolescent girls, as in, the viciousness to the pecking order of the cool girls and the ones that will do anything to become one of them. Tina Fey, the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live has mined that territory, one that seems rife with comic possibilities and gifted us with MEAN GIRLS. Taking as her text Rosalind Wisemans non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes, which depicts in detail what a jungle high school is, ready to take out, at least socially, the weak, or, what is rates much lower in this version of the Darwinian scale, the lumpen.
And so it is apt that Ms Fey has made her heroine, Cady (pronounced Katy and played by the wondrous Lindsay Lohan) a recent immigrant from Africa, where she has been home-schooled by her scholar-parents in the real jungle. A wide-eyed 16-year-old innocent, when she shows up for her first day of school, Cady is a whiz at math, but a hopeless failure at the rigid, and sometimes lethal, ecosystem that is high school. She is taken under wing by two outcasts, Damien (Daniel Franzese), who is melodramatically gay, and Janice (Lizzy Caplan), the schools uber-snide Goth. They offer a pungent outline of how things work, where to sit to avoid the farters, who to avoid to escape social suicide, and how to deal with the king, or rather queen, of this jungle, the aptly named Regina George (Rachel McAdams). She’s the Queen Bee of the Plastics, who, along with her sycophant (Lacey Chabert), and buxom airhead of a sidekick (Courtney Chase), are worshipped and reviled by everyone else, even each other. They are the coolest clique, with the best clothes, the most money, and the most attitude. Total avoidance is what Janis suggests. Naturally, avoidance doesnt work out, conflict follows over, what else, a boy (Jonathan Bennett, who has little to do but look dreamy, the which he does very, very well.). Unnaturally, it lands Cady and company in the position of doing what everyone in school would like to do, that is, get revenge on the Plastics. It involves a fiendishly clever plot that has Cady infiltrating them, working from within to destroy them once and for all, and forge a brave new world of high school harmony.
Fey, who also takes a supporting role as Cadys wry math teacher, has a tart way with laying open the seamy underbelly of the seemingly bottomless capacity for teenage girls to torture one another. She mines the material for all its comic possibilities while never undercutting how pernicious this phenomenon is as we watch Lohan nail the transition from wholesome sweetie pie to over-groomed, under-dressed poison apple desperate for approval from people she really cant stand. Fey includes nifty fantasy sequences where the denizens of the mall and the school suddenly begin to act exactly like the wild animals one would find at a watering hole under African skies that work because theyre parceled out sparsely and the metaphor demonstrated never strays too far from actual, hormone-crazed teenage behavior. For all the broad humor, though, there are more than a few subtle zings of social commentary that should horrify even as they provoke guffaws.
The follow through in the third act is not as good as the set-up, saddled as it is with a ho-hum predictability, and its just a darn shame, especially when things get a bit more than preachy by the time this wild ride has come to its raucous close. But the performances are sharp, the jokes hit home 80% of the time, and Tim Meadows as the carpal-tunnel syndrome suffering school principal gives a breakout performance. Its a little gem of low-key snarkiness showing us a guy who threw in the towel a long time ago, but goes through the motions even though its obvious he cant quite remember why he should make the effort instead of rapturously surrendering to total apathy.
MEAN GIRLS is a smart film masquerading as just another brainless teen flick. Dont be fooled. Its a pointed, poignant reminder of why most people remember high school with a distinct shudder mixed in with the nostalgia. You cant go back in time, but theres some comfort in knowing that we were all pretty much in the same boat. Too bad its a boat thats still sailing full speed ahead.