So I was having a bit of a lame weekend for various reasons and needed some junk food film watching. Having only watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure a few days earlier I had to turn to my other alleged guilty pleasure. That being, girl centric high school comedies. I’ve already covered Clueless here, one day I’ll get to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. What I really needed to watch was a high school comedy with Shakespearean levels of drama. There is only one possible choice. Mean Girls it is then. Click the link for a totally fetch review.
The plot of Mean Girls is so full of backstabbery, deception and general nasty doings that, by logical reason, you’d think you’d hate every character in the film. Essentially the film starts as a simple fish out of water story that leads into a tale of revenge. Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is a 16 year old girl who’s spent her whole life being home-schooled by her parents as they travelled Africa working as zoologists. They have returned home to the US and, as such, Cady must now attend school for the first time. This would normally be premise enough for most high school comedies. A film where a girl who doesn’t get school slowly learns school and then gets accepted at school. Basic school stuff. Where Mean Girls differs that it takes the idea of schools being full of cliques and restrictive rules and plays it all out like some sort of multinational warfare complete with espionage and betrayals.
Cady quickly makes friends with two of the less “cool” kids in her class by the names of Janis (Lizzy Caplan) & Damien (Daniel Franzese) who each have quite the dislike for a Regina George (Rachel McAdams), the leader of a group known as The Plastics. They’re your typical fashion and appearances obsessed, popularity focused girls. The sort that are the bad guys in most high school movies. Cady is convinced to pretend to be friends with them in order to dish dirt on what they get up to to Janis and Damien. Before long Cady experiences just how manipulative Regina can be and vows to destroy the group, making a mockery of Regina in the process. This leads to a complex series of plans that, in a manner similar to an undercover cop film, leads to her morals and judgement being effected by the group she has now become part of. This is pretty much Infernal Affairs the high school comedy.
The film is directed by Mark Waters, his follow up to the decidedly meh Freaky Friday remake. I’ve never been a fan of his work. I can see that he tries to make films that resonate a little more but they’re often littered with issues and missteps. The Spiderwick Chronicles being a fine example of this. Mean Girls is, easily, his best work. I’d attribute some of this to Tina Fey’s excellently crafted script. Not only does she get down all the high school group tropes, but she manages to make actual characters of as many of them as time will permit. She litters in tiny character details, some crude and for laughs, some hinting at whole other stories left unexplored. For example, the school principal, Mr Duvall (Tim Meadows), has a crush on Tina Fey’s character Ms Norbury. He is also very lonely and has his right had constantly bandaged up due to carpal tunnel syndrome. Crude, but funny. On the flip-side is Regina’s mother (Amy Poehler, who’s only 7 years older than Rachel McAdams), desperately clinging onto her youth, wanting nothing more than to be her daughter’s friend. Not original but it gives you just enough to feel that these side characters each have a life outside of their brief roles in the story.
It’s details like that, along with the care to keep Cady from becoming entirely unlikeable, that helps elevate Mean Girls to a higher status. There’s a concerted effort from the film to balance all the character’s goals, the humour and the spiderweb of deceptions without any one element consuming the other. The character arcs are always moving forward with the plot, as it should be. The humour never delves into a “LOOK AT THIS ZANY SHIT!!!” territory. And the deceptions never become so complex that you lose where each character’s alignment lies. Although I do kinda feel sorry for how mean pretty much everyone is to Lacey Chabert’s Gretchen Weiners over the course of the film. She feels like the one member of the Plastics that may have something resembling redeeming features and my thoughts on her have nothing to do with having a crush on the actress when I was a teenager when she was Penny in Lost in Space.
The film has gained quite a cult following over the years, following in the footsteps of the aforementioned Clueless and Fast Times by having genuine longevity across generations. Part of this can be put down to just how endlessly quotable it is. I’d say that if you were to say the word “fetch” in a room of twenty-something women today at least a few would tell you to stop trying to make “fetch” happen. Personally, I’m a fan of the line “you can’t just ask people why they’re white!”. One of the first lines Gretchen says, in response to air head Karen (Amanda Seyfried) asking why Cady is white when she’s from Africa, and you’ve got both character’s intelligence levels pinned down in seconds.
The film doesn’t have the iconic soundtrack that many high school comedies tend to have, although it isn’t really something that’s lost here. The film doesn’t need extra dressing to make it stand out. It’s strong enough just on the merits of it’s script and pitch perfect performances. This isn’t the sort of high school comedy aiming to provide some sort of stronger message or theme, such as those found in films like Saved and Brick, but it does something else entirely. It just rings true to people who have experienced the divided nature of the schoolyard cliques. It’s exaggerated, sure, but not so much as to step into high stylisation.
Mean Girls is the previous generation’s definitive high school flick, much like Clueless was for my generation. There really hasn’t been a film since to really nail that sort of generation defining feeling. No, Superbad isn’t that good. It seems now that any film set in a high school needs to have some sort of supernatural element tied to it because Twilight. If it’s not supernatural there’s some sort of twist that takes it away from being actually about being in high school. Never hear anyone talking about the few pure high school movies in recent years as being classics. No-one mentions Easy A for example. Mean Girls has longevity and that generation spanning quality I mentioned Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure as having in my last review. It stands up because, beyond everything else, beyond the setting, premise and genre, it is just a plain well made, well written and perfectly cast film.