Friday Film Focus: Mean Girls

“Four for Glenn Coco! You go, Glenn Coco! None for Gretchen Wieners.”

“You will get chlamydia and die.”

“It’s like I have ESPN or something.”

“Brutus is just as cute as Caesar, right?”

“I’m the cool mom.”

Reading these lines to oneself does little, but reading them after seeing Mean Girls brings them back with the inflections and the distinctive voices of the superb actors who deliver them. Tina Fey, the screenwriter of this film, gives the script an imposing, three-dimensional authority.

Mean Girls is the story of high-school cliques as told through the eyes of Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), a previously home-schooled teenager who joins Illinois’s North Shore High — only to become the latest plaything of ‘The Plastics.’ This group features three halter-top-wearing beauties who rule the school with an iron fist.

Based on Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees & Wannabes, the film was a surprise hit. It made $130 million at the box office after having had a modest budget of $17 million. Fifteen years on, and the film has become a pop-culture phenomenon.

In a wasteland of stupid movies about teenagers, Mean Girls is incredibly smart and funny. Lohan stars as Cady, a high school junior who was home-schooled in Africa while her parents worked there as anthropologists. She becomes the smartest girl at her new high school when her dad is hired by a Chicago-based university.

What she’s not smart about are the ways cliques work in high school, and how you’re categorized and stereotyped by who you hang with and how you dress. It’s quite brutal. However, Cady makes two friends right away. Janis (Lizzy Caplan) is a semi-goth who introduces an analysis of who sits where in the cafeteria (and why). There’s also Damian (Daniel Franzese) — a man described as “too gay to function.”

They clue her in on the social landscape of the school. ‘The Plastics’ are led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams). A skilled manipulator, she’s flanked by Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried). Janis and Damian warn Cady against the girls from hell. However, Cady’s innocent good looks bring her to the attention of the regally self-infatuated Regina and her fellow ‘Plastics’ members. Putting Cady through a session of mind-games that serve as a de facto initiation, Regina decides reluctantly to offer the new girl a spot with the crew.

Cady’s introduction to Regina and her squad ranks as a classic of comic tension. After Cady reveals a crush on Regina’s ex, the twittering Gretchen tells Cady she can’t act on it. ”That’s, like, the rule of Feminism.” Janis and Damian encourage Cady to infiltrate the group so they can savor all the dirt their spy can uncover as well as set a divide-and-conquer plan in motion. She can be a spy and get inside information for their campaign to destroy Regina.

Sabotage is planned…until Cady decides she likes being cool. As Cady steps into Plastic world, she ruefully questions its existence while happily caught in its gravitational pull. Mean Girls dissects high school society with a lot of observant detail, which seems surprisingly well-informed. The screenplay by Tina Fey is both a comic and a sociological achievement. Fey also plays a math teacher named Ms. Norbury, who is more plausible and likable than most high school teachers in the movies. She’s also kind of lovable, especially in the vicinity of the school principal, Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows, a former SNL star).

Although many of producer Lorne Michaels’ movies with SNL cast members have been broad, dumb and obvious, this one has a light and infectious touch. Also, it didn’t hurt that Lohan was the powerhouse actress of that time. Less than a year earlier, she made everyone forget about the freckle-faced kid from The Parent Trap with the remake of Freaky Friday. For Mean Girls, she reconnected with Freaky Friday director Mark Waters and became the main attraction. Lohan was a flame-haired ball of effortless yet combustible energy.

Fey’s construction of the story provides the discerning perspective, and Lohan brings that perspective to life. On the surface, Mean Girls is a chick flick, but it succeeds because it speaks to real people. All of them. Cady Heron isn’t a caricature. She’s someone who got caught up in the moment, flew too close to the sun, then figuratively crashed and burned.

Mean Girls wasn’t just speaking to the girls in the audience, it was speaking to everyone by capturing the awkwardness of being a teenager. It’s like Heathers chased with Clueless. Mean Girls is nowhere near as darkly satirical as the former. It’s also more congruent with the average teenage experience than the latter. Yet, Mean Girls is more powerful than both.

Fifteen years later, Mean Girls remains one of the great mainstream comedies of all time. It inspired a legion of catchphrases and gave a boost to nearly every single female in the cast (sorry Lacey Chabert). It was not just a great film and a genuine laugh-out-loud comedy. Even more, it’s a shining example of the fact that female-centric films not revolving around men can make money and have an impact on the cultural zeitgeist.

Image Source: Mental Floss