Ten years ago tomorrow, a modestly-budgeted female-led high-school comedy opened across the U.S. Based on the debut feature script from a “Saturday Night Live” writer, adapted from a non-fiction self-help book, starring a coterie of largely unknown faces, and centering on a Disney contract player who’d had a big hit the year before with “Freaky Friday” but a miss earlier in 2004 with “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen,” the film is a rare example of bottled lightning, of a whole that adds up to much more than the sum of the seemingly fairly standard parts. Why else would we be sitting down to write about “Mean Girls” on its 10th birthday?
Financially, the film, directed by Mark Waters (whose own subsequent career, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,“ “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” has been less stellar), was undoubtedly a hit, but not one that, like “Freaky Friday” before it, crossed the all-important $100m domestic marker. In fact, as the 28th biggest film of 2004, its take lay an order of magnitude behind several other of that year’s PG-13 comedies— “Fifty First Dates,” “Dodgeball” “Meet The Fockers”—while the younger edge of its demographic was apparently flocking to the “The Princess Diaries 2,” ‘Lemony Snicket’ and of course ‘Harry Potter’ in droves. But how many of us quote “Meet the Fockers” on a more or less daily basis? Has anything from “The Princess Diaries 2” ever happened the way “fetch” didn’t? When Tina Fey, then pre-“30 Rock,” read “Queen Bees and Wannabes” and called ‘SNL’ producer Lorne Michaels to discuss making it into a narrative film script, could she possibly have known the resulting movie would have this lasting an impact? It had to have been some sort of fifth sense, like she had ESPN or something.
Because “Mean Girls’ ” real legacy is not in its blockbusting box office, but in how well it’s lasted, and in fact, grown in esteem. At the time it was a delight, and felt buoyed up on a thermal current of zeitgeist, but with retrospect we can also see how it was built to last, packaged so perfectly and with such insight that it has had a much longer shelf life than many others of its ilk. There is in general something about the universality of the teen experience that when a film does it right it can inspire little less than lifelong devotion in a large swathe of its audience—just check out how passionately/nostalgically people will talk about “The Breakfast Club” or “Clueless” or “Heathers.” So as “Mean Girls” becomes the latest inductee into that particular hall of fame, we thought we’d celebrate its birthday/give ourselves an excuse to rewatch it by taking a look at the main reasons for its lasting appeal. Get in, loser, we’re going shopping.
1. A Cast Loaded With Future Stars
“I can’t help it that I’m so popular.” – Gretchen
“Mean Girls” provided breakout roles for so many young actors who went on to bright careers since—it was Amanda Seyfried’s first big-screen credit (she was neck-and-neck with Rachel McAdams for the Regina role, initially), while Lizzy Caplan had a string of TV appearances prior but nothing notable. Tina Fey, herself, of course plays the teacher Ms. Norbury (in a performance that she’s endearingly self-deprecating about on the DVD commentary—she is a bit ropey in parts) while Amy Poehler steals everything in sight in her couple of scenes as Regina’s mother with the breasts so fake she can’t feel her dog chewing on her nipple. Those two ladies are obviously now the reigning queens of TV comedy, and pretty much unassailable icons to anyone who doesn’t hate joy.
And then there’s the central duo, who almost feel cast against subsequent type. Lindsay Lohan originally read for Regina, but the success of “Freaky Friday” led to her being given the lead role of Cady, in both a nod to her higher profile but also a shift in what producers believed people would accept from her; they didn’t want her to be the villain, despite Lohan reportedly responding very strongly to that role. Instead, it went to McAdams, who is magnificent as the spiteful Queen Bee, but who’d notably play the good girl/romantic lead more often afterwards in the sickly/swoony/delete where appropriate “The Notebook,” “Wedding Crashers,” “The Family Stone,” etc., before becoming the versatile and intelligent presence we know her as today.
But of its actors, this film is always going to be most associated with Lohan, and as probably her best ever role (we would have thought she’d have had a career much more like McAdams’ if you’d asked us back then) it does now feel like a time capsule snapshot of the promise and talent that she once had. She really is extremely good as Cady and sells her “trip to the dark side” arc perfectly, so it’s ironic and not a little saddening that the following years have seen her plot the opposite trajectory to her character’s, and become a lot more, well, plastic. In an interview in 2013, Fey remarked that the first thing that comes to mind when she thinks back on “Mean Girls” is the “beautiful, healthy Lindsay Lohan,” and certainly, watching it now is kind of like witnessing an early chapter in a multi-stranded origin story, complete with its own evolving heroes and villains.
2. It’s Not Just Smart, It’s Wise
“All you can do in life is try to solve the problem that’s in front of you.” – Cady
In the post-”30 Rock” word we now inhabit, it’s possible to see quite a few hallmark Fey-isms in the script, as we’ve all become familiar with her style; it’s a skewed and insightful take that doesn’t rely so much on pop culture references (occasional allusions to Danny DeVito aside) but instead taps into a less ephemera, more timeless sense of the ridiculousness of being a teenager. This is fairly revolutionary for a teen comedy in which oftentimes a reference to Jimmy Choo or a certain handbag designer is shorthand for hilarious cultural commentary, but Fey’s depiction of shallowness, while peppered with enough of these namedrops to feel rooted in its time, is somehow much deeper.
But while the snappy, crazily quotable dialogue gets a lot of props ( “Fetch” being the perennial poll-topper, though we’ll admit to personal fondness for the perfume that smells “like a baby prostitute”) the structure of the screenplay deserves praise for how it deviates from the teen comedy template, particularly for how it redeems its villain, and gives everyone a life beyond the obligatory climactic high school social event, in this case the Spring Fling. It’s perhaps the greatest wisdom of Fey’s script that the girls actually do change, they don’t simply get rewarded or get punished—basically, they grow up a bit. Where so many high school comedies pander to the rather hormonal idea that what happens to you at 16 is the most crucial, dramatic and desperately important thing in the world, the ultimate moral of “Mean Girls” is simply: this too shall pass. Of course it’s a perspective that is really only available to those outside that age, and as Fey herself noted, only half joking, “Adults find it funny. They are the ones who are laughing … Young girls watch it like a reality show.”
3. The Issues It Tackles Are Still Relevant
“You have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores.” – Ms. Norbury
Bullying, slutshaming and homophobia are front and center of the plot of “Mean Girls,” and are obviously still massive issues in high schools and beyond today. But underlying almost all of that hot-button stuff is the area in which “Mean Girls” sets itself ahead of the pack: throughout, it is remarkably cuttingly incisive about how girls of that age talk to and treat each other, and how, whether they realize it or not, that contributes to their view of themselves. From Cady realizing that it’s not just about fat or skinny, “but apparently there are lots of things that can be wrong on your body” (Karen hilariously kvetches over her nail beds), to the cleverly achieved sequences in which call waiting or three-way calls are used to let someone know what someone else really thinks of them, to the subtler cues like how Regina and her sister are overtly sexualized by their mother (we first glimpse the younger sister shaking her prepubescent booty to Kelis‘ “Milkshake”), this is where “Mean Girls” stops being simply a very funny comedy, dons its armor and goes into battle.
Because there really is a steady throughline of sincere concern, maybe even anger, in the script, about how society teaches its young women to relate to each other, and to boys (viz. Cady pretending she’s bad at math so Aaron will help her). Occasionally this impulse is so strong that the film stumbles and becomes a bit didactic (the post-riot gymnasium talk and subsequent trust exercises are kind of cringey for laying this subtext so bare) but the sincerity of the intention makes these infrequent lapses forgivable. Sadly, if anything, the social-media-driven world in which teenaged girls now live is maybe even more rife with the opportunities for pettiness, jealousy, pressures to conform, victimization and bullying that “Mean Girls” wants so much to counteract, so if anything, its message has become even more relevant with the passage of time.
4. The Attention to Detail and Side Characters Reward Rewatching
“Nerd is inferred. But forget what you heard, I’m like James Bond the Third.” – Kevin G
One of the chief markers of the kind of longevity that “Mean Girls” has achieved is that it bears up under repeated rewatches; in fact it develops. Largely this is because the script is so dense with throwaway quips that you always find something you didn’t quite notice the last time around. (One example: just recently we noticed how cleverly Cady’s speech to Regina explaining why she isn’t losing any weight eating the Swedish weight-gain bars mimics the pseudo-science mumbo-jumbo of fad diet language). Additionally, the film has an affection for its minor characters that adds texture to the background. So Kevin G (Rajiv Surendra) the Mathlete captain, who in most other movies would be the stereotype of the socially insecure nerd, is also a bitchin’ MC and gets to deliver a terrible, but totally cocksure rap (written by Amy Poehler in fact); Damian (Daniel Franzese who recently wrote this touching coming out letter to his character on sister Indiewire blog Bent) may be “too gay to function” but also emerges as the most down-to-earth and secure character in the film; while even the adults get their character moments. Ms. Norbury works three jobs, one as a bartender at “PJ Calamity’s,” Principal Duvall is revealed to be as terrorized/fascinated by Regina George as everyone else, and so on.
Of course, while “Mean Girls” picks its battles well, it can’t wage war on all fronts so some areas do only get cursory attention and can feel a little one-note, like the two Asian girls who are fighting over the coach, and indeed the whole coach-with-a-thing-for-underage-girls subplot feels sort of light on consequence. Perhaps that’s a factor of a broader issue of focus: very few male characters, since the film’s perspective is not really ever theirs, are anything but objects over which the girls flirt and fight and make each other miserable. Still, these cases aside, it scores well on making real people out of characters who in another film are so much stock footage, and if there are a lot of the cast whose job it is to turn up and deliver one joke, at least it’s usually a good joke. (“One time she met John Stamos on a plane…and he told her she was pretty.”)
5. It Hasn’t Really Been Replaced Yet
“Oh look, Junior Plastics.” – Cady
Finally, one big reason that “Mean Girls” still resonates today is that it hasn’t yet been supplanted. To some extent every generation gets the high school comedy they deserve, and within that canon, there’s a further subset of films that concentrate especially on the travails of the female schoolgoing experience. Of those, the peaks are probably: “Pretty In Pink” (1986), “Clueless” (1995) and “Mean Girls” (2004) with ”Heathers” a slight outlier due to its more blackly comic tone and “Easy A” a strong addition to the genre, but one that somehow does not feel quite as universal or as definitive as those aforementioned three. So, if the nine-year cycle between epochal teen-girl high school films were to continue, something new and shiny should have come along last year, to launch a whole new crop of young stars and trendy buzzwords on the moviegoing public. Damned if we can think of one that fits the bill, though, so we guess we’re overdue?
Certainly, “Mean Girls”’ preeminence is not going to be challenged by its own sequel. “Mean Girls 2” released straight to DVD in 2011 and really its only redeeming quality is that it is a fascinating comparison point: while the outline of the story (outsider girl joins new high school, falls foul of popular clique over a boy, becomes briefly worse than they are as she plots revenge, learns error of ways and true meaning of friendship, etc.) resembles that of the original, the execution has none of the original’s wit, wisdom or “wide-set vaginas.” So what remains is simply “Mean Girls” made by people who seem to have totally missed the point of “Mean Girls.” In fact, we’d suggest that the stars-aligning nature of the first film means any attempt to replicate it without the key players, director and specifically without Tina Fey, was always doomed to failure.
The next great high school film, one that’ll broadly define the female schoolgoing experience in the age of Twitter, snapchat and nofilter selfies may not be here yet, but “Mean Girls” will do just fine while we’re waiting. After all, it may never have made “Fetch” happen, but arguably it pulled off an even greater trick: it made “stop trying to make ‘Fetch’ happen” happen.