Gretchen really needn’t have worried; ‘fetch’ happened. Not necessarily in the adoption of the word into the cultural lexicon, but in the popularity of Mean Girls which has endured for just over a decade since its release. It’s widely considered amongst the best teen comedies and a cult movie in its own right, even prompting Entertainment Weekly to reunite the cast for an anniversary celebration and ask the inevitable question concerning a proper sequel. The chances of the whole creative team returning to continue the story are slim, but a re-viewing of the 2004 hit confirms that it would be a hard act to follow, even today. It is truly special, but what sets it apart in a highly populated genre?
Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan in arguably her most famous role) provides our perspective as she starts in the intimidating world of North Shore High School. From a normal background of being home-schooled by her zoologist parents, she is kind, well-meaning, and completely unprepared for the potentially poisonous nature of other adolescents, and North Shore is teeming with them. The school is a society of cliques and unspoken rules dominated by a gaggle of girls known as ‘The Plastics’ – walking Barbie dolls of privilege and materialism. They’ve seemingly ruined the lives of many girls on campus including Cady’s new friend Janis (Lizzy Caplan) who enlists her to help bring alpha Plastic, Regina George (Rachel McAdams) down a peg or ten.
The source material – Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman – is no fiction novel but instead a self-help book written for parents wishing to guide their young daughters through the teenage minefield. The film takes a much more exaggerated and wry view of events common to most high-schoolers but the authentic basis enriches the satirical comedy that follows. Tina Fey combines her own memories with the wit she brought to Saturday Night Live to produce a script full of quotable lines – “You go, Glen Coco!” – but more importantly, populated by characters encompassing the great variety of stereotypical teens.
That sounds like damning criticism but the characters are not one-note caricatures, at least not the main cast. They bring subtle nuances and great conviction to their performances that would be expected of seasoned comedic actors. The standout is arguable Lacey Chabert as downtrodden second-in-command Gretchen Wieners whose visible distress at the breakdown of the established social order reaches a hilarious pinnacle with her outburst of repressed anger against a domineering ‘Caesar’. It’s not just the main cast who are on song, even the lesser characters hit their marks – who can forget mathlete and self-styled badass M.C. Kevin G? Mean Girls is a true out-and-out comedy written with wit and visual gags to spare. You’ll likely be laughing before the opening credits have finished.
In the midst of this, Fey (perhaps intentionally in character) uses the build up of good humour to say something important to the assembled teenage girls, both onscreen and in the audience. While her message of positive feminism – encompassing the dangers of sacrificing identity and harmful degradation of girls by other girls – might appear incongruous with the film’s mocking tone, it’s the sincerity in Fey’s words along with the real-life basis that make them ring true, even if they might not linger as long in the mind as, “Nice wig, Janis…”
The aesthetic of Mean Girls feels very much rooted in early noughties culture, and phrases like “regulation hottie” keep it there, but they never bring it down. Likewise the story wraps up in predictable tried-and-true style with a somewhat clichéd end-of-year dance and a lot of optimism doled out by Lohan’s narration. At first glance it’s too sugar-coated to fit with the rest of the film, where we’ve been entertained by laughing at the ridiculous events, but seen again it’s a fitting end for a film that treats its characters with so much warmth no matter how bitchy they were in the process.