The nasty brilliance of Mean Girls.

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April 29 2004 7:07 PM

Female Trouble

Mean Girls dissects the high-school cafeteria.

Delightfully mean
Delightfully mean

As one who passed through adolescence when "geek" meant someone who bit the heads off chickens and the social-caste system of American juvenile culture was rarely acknowledged, much less made sport of, I've wondered what it's like to grow up with movies and TV shows that relentlessly deconstruct the high-school experience—not to mention with best sellers that carry titles like Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. Does seeing it and reading about it help, or is high school just such a social and hormonal chamber of horrors that no amount of knowledge—or irony—can mitigate the agony?

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Let's see what the culture makes of Mean Girls (Paramount), a funny and good-natured hybrid of pop psychology and Saturday Night Live satire, written by the 33-year-old head writer of SNL, Tina Fey. She began with Wiseman's nonfiction best seller, a scattershot analysis of roles—girls are identified as "Queen Bee," "Sidekick," "Floater," "Pleaser/Wannabe/Messenger," etc.—broken up by tables, maps, exhortations, and lots of anecdotes about females getting called sluts by other females. That's followed by tips on how to empower one's daughter—I hate that word, but nothing else really fits—to transcend her peer-designated persona and navigate successfully through that scary place that Wiseman calls "Girl World."

The good thing about using Wiseman's how-to manual as the basis for her screenplay is that it grounds Fey's work in observed human behavior rather than, like most SaturdayNight Live-affiliated movies produced by Lorne Michaels, a limited performer's limitless ego. Fey is not even the star: She plays a frazzled but good-natured math teacher who turns into a Wiseman-like counselor. The protagonist is 16-year-old Cady (Lindsay Lohan, from last year's Freaky Friday), a newcomer to American high school after years of being taught by her parents in Africa—i.e., a clean slate.

Fey has said it was a Paramount executive who asked her to make Cady the daughter of research zoologists instead of a home-schooled American—because home schooling is thought to be a little, you know, creepy. That might represent a kind of commercial gutlessness, but it turns out to be a great idea, because now Cady can look at teen rituals from an anthropological—or, really, zoological—perspective. Those kids around the fountain at the local mall: They're like the beasts mating by the water hole. The subtle one-upmanship and sabotage: It would happen on the veldt with claws and fangs.

The early part of Mean Girls is like a mixture of Heathers (1989) and Goodfellas (1990), complete with breezy, journalistic narration: The nonconforming outcast Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan)—not the singer-songwriter but maybe a tribute to her—lays out the school's sundry cliques and draws a map of the segregated cafeteria. It's at lunch that Cady meets the popular and exclusive "Plastics"—two blondes and a brunette, led by the so-called fount of all evil, Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Unexpectedly, the Plastics glom onto Cady: They think she's pretty and exotic, and their inbred culture has made them desperate for fresh blood.

It's in Cady's scenes with the Plastics that Fey's comic gifts mesh with Wiseman's first-hand research, and the wit becomes dazzling. The director, Mark Waters (FreakyFriday) dotes on his long-limbed actresses: McAdams as the tigress Queen Bee, Amanda Seyfried as the apotheosis of all dumb blonde jokes, and the dark one, Lacey Chabert, as Gretchen Wieners, the low girl on the Plastic totem pole and the one who labors almost hysterically to maintain her position. (She spends the movie trying to coin a slangy new phrase—"It's so fetch"—only to be incinerated by her Queen in a single line.) As the girls take turns posing in the mirror and critiquing their own calves, shoulders, and chests, Lohan's Cady gazes on them with zoological wonderment; and the actress has a natural, redheaded Irish-American prettiness that's a nice contrast to these wiggly Barbie dolls. Yet the Plastics magnetize Cady, who seeks their affirmation even as she ridicules them and tries (with Janis and another outcast, the "too gay to live" Damien [playedby Daniel Franzese]) to bring them down.

Actually, I found these Plastics surprisingly likable compared to the ones I knew in junior high and high school, who were less cliquey but more mean—or maybe they just seemed more mean because I was so horribly vulnerable to them. The danger they pose in MeanGirls is to Cady's soul: Will she become the new Queen Bee and abandon her outcast pals? Or will she recover her ironic distance and transcend these absurd classifications? There's not a lot of suspense—and, in truth, Mean Girls is more premise than plot. It runs out of comic steam toward the end, when Cady and her dull hunk (Jonathan Bennett)—Regina's ex-boyfriend—actually get to, you know, talking. And it turns very peculiar, indeed, when Fey's teacher gathers the girls together in the gym and tries to get them to recognize the patterns of envy and aggression that rule their lives—in effect, to reprogram them.

Yet even at its squarest, the movie's mixture of parody and therapy feels kind of … hip. Maybe it's that Fey—who has triumphed in the male-dominated (to put it mildly) world of TV comedy—wants to lampoon her female subjects without drawing too much blood. Male SNL style comedy is traditionally about one-upmanship and often nasty displays of comic potency, but Fey really seems to want to make this a movie that's both scathing and healing. I can think of a few lissome high-school acquaintances I'd love to watch it with—if they can fit their expanded fortysomething backsides into the seats. Whoops: maybe I might need some of that healing therapy myself.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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