Mean Girls
Watch your back.
Directed by: Mark S. Waters
Lindsay Lohan
Rachel McAdams
Tina Fey
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 97 minutes 2004

Tina Fey takes off her shirt. Lindsay Lohan is in virtually every scene. Tim Meadows enforces authority. There are lots of jokes that are funny even when laughing over them later on with your friends. I don't know what you might think makes for a good movie, but personally, any reasonable combination of these elements can only result in movie goodness.

Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan, who turned 18 on July 2, 2004 for those keeping score at home, and I hear she does car commercials in Japan) has been home schooled for years while at least one of her parents did research in Africa. Things change when she starts attending high school for her Junior year in a wealthy suburb of Chicago. Not only does she have to adjust to the alien and wholly counterintuitive rules of public school administration, she is also thrust into a teenage social structure where roles are strictly defined and observed. She quickly makes friends with a flamboyantly gay guy and a slightly ethnic art goth, but she doesn't really fit in with them because, as they tell her, she's a class-A hottie. Which is true. Lindsay Lohan is a class-A hottie. So far, the movie hasn't strayed from reality.

Cady's hotness doesn't escape the notice of The Plastics, a group of three supercute super-popular girls who everyone else resents but secretly wishes they could emulate. Their leader, cookie-cutter-looking blond Regina George (Rachel McAdams, who looks 27 because she is, but will never be as hot as Lindsay Lohan, so she's probably just jealous anyway) thinks Cady is plenty good looking enough to increase Regina's power over the less-popular members of the school, so she invites her into her group. This excites Cady's less popular friends who urge her to befriend Regina in an effort to sabotage her self-esteem from a position of trust. Interestingly enough, that's exactly what Regina plans to do to Cady. Apparently, girls are mean to other girls in subtle ways that are indistinguishable from being their friends. I never knew.

The rest of the movie is a not-too-unpredictable but yet compelling unravelling of alliances and friendships. There is also a guy involved who Cady and Regina both want, naturally, and there's also a dance at the end. But those are to be expected. The acting is pretty spot-on for high school kids, which aren't that hard to portray anyway, and the direction and script are snappy and clear. I even checked with a girl who, like, totally goes to high school in Chicago right near where that movie was based, and, shut up, it's soooo just like the way it is there, for serious. Overall, it's a good teen movie. This might be equivalent to saying "It's a good poisonous cobra," but if you thought high school was an inexhaustible source of silliness and humor, this might just be the movie for you.

Once more, it is time to realize that a new piece of pop culture is now a part of history, and despite being still in currency as a source of catchphrases and memes, it is also 12 years old, a result of a time that now seems quaint. It has more in common with 1995's Clueless, both chronologically and culturally, than it has in common with the youth culture of today. So lets take a look back at this movie and see what has changed.

Although I did like the movie overall, I felt that at times it had trouble finding its tone. Most of the plot and characters of the movie are familiar to the well-trod path of the US high school movie. These were already so well established that they had been parodied several years earlier in "Not Another Teen Movie". So this movie has everything that could be expected: the nerdy girl who is actually sexy, the comic relief Asian nerds, the high school party that goes out of control and ends up with a broken heart, the big school dance or two, the climactic competition, and several others. What the movie did was try to add a realistic understanding of teen dynamics (mostly taken from non-fiction book "Queen Bees & Wannabes") to these conventions. At times, I felt that it didn't succeed either way. It is too serious to be slapstick, but too full of caricatures to be a serious coming of age story. A not unrelated problem is that, like most television shows and movies that portray teenagers, most of the actors were in their twenties.

One of the most obvious changes since the films release was the rise of social media. Although there was nascent social networking in 2004, it was still a niche, and the movie's only real reference to technology changing social life is a scene where phone connections allow the girls to inadvertently spy on each other. Another aspect of the movie that seems outdated now is the casual homophobia that the popular girls aim at the supposedly Lesbian character Janis Ian. For the type of upper-middle class students that this movie portrays, homosexuality and other diverse identities have become a fact of life. This social change isn't separate from technological change: access to the internet and social networking has generally made teenagers much more aware of different people and different lifestyles. The characters in this movie exist in a technological and social bubble that I do not think could exist today.

All of the things mentioned in the proceeding paragraphs are why I don't think the movie could be made today: although the movie contains some minority, disabled and sexual minority characters, and treats them seriously in a few scenes, they are mostly used for their stock comedy effect, and are mostly supports for the white, middle class characters' story. Rewriting the story for the age of Facebook and Twitter would probably require more than a casual rewrite, and while bullying still goes on, it is for more subtle reasons than those portrayed in the movie. And the ages of the actors, while seemingly a minor point, is one of the major issues in the movie for me. Because the movie has adults acting as teenagers, and in some ways they seem too old, too mature, too sexualized, while at the same time they seem younger.

Maybe it is a function of my own age, but one thing I have noticed about teenage culture in the past few years is that they seem in some ways younger than when I was a teenager, because they have given up the jaded and cynical air that we had, and often seem lighter and more frivolous, but they are also much older, because they are aware of the larger world in a way earlier generations weren't. Although I am sure high school still has its cliques and obsessions, young people do have the choice (and have been taking it) to see a much wider version of the world. Although this movie is a comedy, and is dealing with the well-known character tropes of the high school movie, I still find it unlikely that these seemingly adult teenagers could ever maintain a world so insular and myopic as the one portrayed in this movie.

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