Those who disparage the sunny conventions of the teen movie – as set out by Clueless (1995) or American Pie (1999) – are quick to find the redemption of this genre in 'dark side' exceptions: films that steer their way towards the arthouse by emphasising something cruel, morbid or tragic in the lives of youth.
Alas, even the dark side is pretty bright these days, if one judges the distance between, say, Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls. Both films attempt to take the teen movie into the realm of black comedy. But where the earlier effort had the courage of its cynical convictions, Mean Girls, directed by Mark Waters (Freaky Friday, 2003) mainly wimps out.
Tina Fey's script is based on the non-fiction best-seller Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. This wide-eyed explanation of the pecking order and controlling rituals among schoolgirls is perfect teen movie material. Indeed, both book and film hook onto a note of moral panic around this issue: in a world obsessed with status, can schoolyard games, in a grotesque mimicry of the broader society, lead to misery, injury, even death?
Cady (Lindsay Lohan) is on the verge of the transition from years of home schooling by her parents in Africa to fitting in at a typical American high school. In an endlessly overdone gag, she sometimes sees the mass of students as an animal pack sniffing, snorting and fighting for territory.
At first, Cady gravitates to outsiders like anarchistic Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and gay Damian (Daniel Franzese). But a dare – that Cady should spend more time with the 'plastic' girls in order to report back on their wicked ways – leads to awful consequences.
Soon Cady finds herself virtually brainwashed by Queen Bee Regina (Rachel McAdams) and her anxious cronies Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried). When this social elite begins unravelling, the machinations resemble an episode of The Sopranos – and, here again, Mean Girls faintly gestures towards some of the horrendous episodes of teen murder that have gripped the American imagination in recent years.
The tone of this movie never quite gels. Fey, a Saturday Night Live alumnus who gives herself a major role here, is too fond of silly jokes that remove the gravity from the story's premise. Nor does the evolution of the tale, especially the unfolding of Cady's moral crisis, register with much believability, even for a highly artificial genre like this. And, while preaching tolerance, the film never seems comfortable with its Asian and gay characters.
But there is some fun to be had along the way. Lohan is on the road to stardom; she is ably backed by many vigorous portrayals of teen stereotypes. And some of the details are spot-on, such as the three-way phone games that shift power relations and institute treachery among the girls in a heartbeat.
© Adrian Martin June 2004