Back to School Month: "Mean Girls" Review

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Adapted from Rosalind Wiseman's book "Queen Bees and Wannabes", this teen comedy drama launched Lindsay Lohan's career in 2004. As 16-year-old Cady Heron, her character has just moved to an American suburb and enrolled in a public school after having been home-schooled in the African boondocks. She first befriends two misfits, but soon joins the three most popular girls in a group called the Plastics.
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Back to School Month: "Mean Girls" Review

Rating: PG-13 (sexual content, language, and some teen partying)
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: April 30, 2004
Directed by: Mark Waters
Genre: Comedy

Cady Heron, played by Lindsay Lohan, is a young woman who has largely been home-schooled by her anthropologist parents as they traveled from place to place in Africa. When they suddenly move back to the United States, they settle in the city, and Cady prepares to go to a traditional high school for the first time. She is completely unaware of the way things work in a high school, especially when it comes to cliques and the burning question of who you are and aren't allowed to sit with in the cafeteria during lunch. Her first day could be described as an unmitigated disaster if not for the guidance and assurance of her math teacher Ms. Norbury (Tina Fey), who gets her to join the math team.

Luckily for Cady, her second day of high school goes much smoother than her first. She meets Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and her best friend Damian (Daniel Franzese), who have banded together because they are social outcasts. Janis is a goth-like misanthrope, and Damian is overweight and gay, which makes both of them objects of ridicule for the popular crowd, particularly the Plastics, led by Regina (Rachel McAdams). Cady bonds with Janis and Damian over their mutual dislike of Regina and her group. Though Cady clearly doesn't like the Plastics, Regina takes an interest in her and invites her to sit with the group at lunch.

Cady accepts the invitation and soon infiltrates the shallow world of the Plastics at the behest of Janis, who wants her to be a double agent. Janis has always wanted to take down Regina, so she gets Cady to give her info on their insular world that she can use later. At first, Cady is fine with this, but eventually, she gets sucked in and becomes a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the Plastics, causing tension in her friendship with Janis and Damian. She is walking on a slippery slope between the two worlds, which becomes all the more slippery when she falls for Regina's ex-boyfriend, the kindhearted Aaron (Jonathan Bennett). Will she be able to juggle the two worlds, or will she have to choose one side or the other and risk losing friends and social status in the process?

Though the film largely centers on the high school students, it does break from their problems long enough to focus on the teachers when required, specifically Ms. Norbury. Played by the incomparable Fey, Ms. Norbury is funny and slightly awkward but very enlightened and in tune with her students. This is a huge departure from the way teachers are usually portrayed in teen-focused films. Usually, they are the butt of jokes or objects of ridicule for their obvious obliviousness. Take for example the principle in "The Breakfast Club," whose line about messing with the bull and getting the horns is the stuff of pop culture legend. However, the portrayal of the adults in their lives in this negative manner was said to debase the teens in the film, even though it was pretty indicative of how teachers were generally handled in teen movies. In contrast, Ms. Norbury values her students and is continually looking for ways to improve their educational and life experiences. It is a nice change of pace for this genre, especially since Fey is absolutely charming in the role.

Fey wrote the script for the film, her first movie screenplay. It is based on the book "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence." The book is not a novel, so some of what is in the book actually happened to author Rosalind Wiseman. Perhaps that is why the situations that the characters find themselves in ring so true to many people, even those for whom high school is a distant memory. Even the most comical situations feel like they could happen in real life, giving the movie an air of authenticity that is rare in the teen genre. Based on this film, it is a shame that Fey has yet to try her hand at another screenplay, seeming content to act in movies rather than write them.

Lohan was just 17 years old when the film was released, which seems like a long time ago considering how much has happened to her since then. With all of the young starlet's legal troubles, it is easy to forget that once she was a fresh-faced child star with acting talent beyond her years. She is fantastic here as Cady, grounding the character and the movie and making it much more accessible in the process. It's a reminder of the talent that Lohan possesses, which is part of the appeal of this fun, occasionally hilarious, film.

Rating: 3 out of 5