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Dustin Putman

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Mean Girls (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Mark S. Waters
Cast: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Lacey Chabert, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Franzese, Amanda Seyfried, Tina Fey, Jonathan Bennett, Tim Meadows, Neil Flynn, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Rajiv Surendra, Daniel DeSanto, Jonathan Malen, Ky Pham
2004 – 90 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual situations and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 1, 2004.

Say what you want about the state of cinema in 2004, thus far, but the last few months have been enormously kind to teen comedies. Amazing, too, that just when said genre seemed almost played out, gasping for its last remaining breaths of life, a slew of highly perceptive, sharp-witted features would all be released within the same month or two. Movies that were not only intelligent and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny and an accurate comment on some form of the high school experience, but also original. The unfortunately overlooked "The Girl Next Door" was emphatic and vibrant enough to stand as one of the best teen films of the last decade. "13 Going on 30" was little more than bubblegum entertainment, but had enough real moments to make an impact. And the upcoming "Saved!" is a wonderfully written and acted satire, an ode to John Hughes with a Christian high school spin.

Now we have "Mean Girls," a motion picture infinitely more adept, savvy, and intoxicating than its by-the-book marketing would have you believe. Much of the credit can wholeheartedly go to "Saturday Night Live" writer-actress Tina Fey, who has used the unlikely source material of a non-fiction book by Rosalind Wiseman called "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence" to adapt into her feature film debut. Fey has keyed into the memory of her own teenage years to create a movie that digs deeply and with precision into the inner workings of a typical high school experience, and she does it all with a good-hearted, non-condescending message and her own brand of remarkably biting comic zingers. This quirky mix of opposites—light and black comedy, zaniness and touching authenticity, broad topics and bewitching satire—come together to make "Mean Girls" one of the better films so far this year.

Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) may be 16-years-old, but having just moved back to the U.S. after living and being home-schooled in Africa all her life, the experience of attending a public school is foreign to her. Her first day is a disaster, as she does not have the first idea how her classmates interact with each other based on their place in the popularity stratosphere, and she ends up eating lunch quietly in a bathroom stall. Cady's second day is a little better, however, when she is befriended by the semi-goth Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and openly gay Damian (Daniel Franzese), and they give her a tour of the school's different groups.

Janis despises no one more than Regina George (Rachel McAdams), the stuck-up queen bee of the Plastics—materialistic teen royalty whom everyone loves to hate. When Regina and her two minions, the insecure Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert) and supremely ditzy Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried), invite Cady to join their exclusive club, Janis sees it as the perfect way for an outsider to get dirt on them and sabotage their faux-happy existence. Cady is only too happy to go along with Janis' plan when she sees what a vicious backstabber Regina can be. The longer she hangs out with the Plastics, however, Cady sees herself slowly turning into them, the very type of person she can't stand.

Directed at a knowing, zippy clip by Mark S. Waters (2003's "Freaky Friday"), "Mean Girl" is a smashing satire surprisingly knowledgeable about the what's, how's, and why's of teenage life. In its seeming exaggerations that, when you stop to think about them, aren't very exaggerated at all, the film recalls 1999's brilliant "Election" and 1989's "Heathers," and, to a lesser but still notable extent, 1995's "Clueless." It is in all of its sly, little details that a lesser, more conventional teen comedy would ignore, pebbles of truth that make you nod in recognition that, yes, that's exactly how it was when you were in high school. The way the lunch cafeteria is broken down into unspoken quadrants, and one is not to even attempt to sit at a table where he or she clearly doesn't belong. The way kids interact with each other, involved in gossip and secrets that, of course, they can never keep to themselves. The way Cady's math teacher, the quietly lonely Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), happens to see Cady and her friends at the mall after getting off her shift as a bartender. Ms. Norbury is down-to-earth enough, and makes a valiant attempt to strike up a conversation with the girls, but they look at her as if she were from another planet. High school teachers, after all, are not supposed to have lives outside of class.

The comedy, meanwhile, is tart and deliciously unexpected, relying on humor found in the dialogue over the usual more physical angle (although there is some of that also). Very little is of the throwaway variety because Tina Fey's screenplay is more concerned with ideas and smarts over cheap laughs. Fibbing about some part of yourself in order to get someone to like you, sacrificing something you love to do in order to not be looked upon negatively, wishing you were someone else while also hating them, dealing with a generally clueless principal (Tim Meadows)—they're all here, true-to-life experiences both big and small that anyone who has ever been a teenager can attest to.

The final thirty minutes take a decidedly more serious turn, even with a stream of laugh-inducing moments continuing, and by this point the film has earned the right to slow things down and narrow in on Cady's transformation from a nave girl into a wiser young woman. When the school's female population run out of control after xerox's of a hateful book of put-down's featuring them is released in the hallways, Ms. Norbury calls for an intervention in which each of them must apologize for something they have said or done to another student. The tone of the sequence, and the love and care and sincerity put into it, holds a kind of incendiary beauty. The same could be said about the climax at the spring dance, which goes a different route from the average prom finale, and a lovely final sequence that proves kids are more intelligent than some might think, with even the most hopeless cases having the power to change for the better.

For Lindsay Lohan (2004's "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen"), her nuanced, three-dimensional turn as Cady is the stepping stone she needs to show that she is capable of much more than just being likable and sweet in family-oriented features. The journey Cady takes throughout her junior school year is a complex one, as she makes some awful mistakes before gaining the insight needed to become a better person, and Lohan is up to the challenge every step of the way. The whole cast, in fact, is without fault. As the Plastics, Rachel McAdams (2002's "The Hot Chick"), Lacey Chabert (TV's "Party of Five" and 2002's "Daddy Day Care"), and newcomer Amanda Seyfried bypass the easy route of playing their parts as irredeemable caricatures; they feel like real teenage girls who can be nasty, but not insufferably so, and there is more depth to them than at first meets the eye.

As Cady's outsider friends Janis and Damian, Lizzy Caplan (2002's "Orange County") and Daniel Franzese (2001's "Bully") are infectious scene-stealers. Even Regina's ex-boyfriend, Aaron, whom Cady has eyes for, is played by Jonathan Bennett as a nice guy who is annoyed by the Plastics as much as everyone else is. "Saturday Night Live" members from the past and present fill out the memorable adult roles. Tina Fey is delightfully on-target as Ms. Norbury; Tim Meadows (2000's "The Ladies Man") is Principal Duvall; Amy Poehler (2004's "Envy") is funny as Regina's overly involved young mother, who attempts to blend herself into her daughter's pack; and Ana Gasteyer (2000's "What Women Want") is Cady's increasingly frazzled mom.

Fast-paced and never less than wholly engaging, "Mean Girls" has been deceptively marketed in its trailer and TV ads as a bubbly, commonplace teen comedy when nothing could be further from the truth. The plot trajectory has a mind to its madness, and the film itself has a distinct voice and rich ideas to go along with its sillier moments of comedy. Amidst it all is Cady, a protagonist that gains our sympathies and whom we always like, even when she finds herself straying off the right path. Rooting for her to regain her footing is only part of the fun. "Mean Girls" is faithful to its title but is so much deeper than that, a splendidly affecting, one-of-a-kind gem with real crossover potential. It could be a new classic in the teen genre.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman