If John Hughes, Heathers, and their teen-comedy disciples are to be believed, adolescents develop a sense of hierarchy and social order long before they start to question their place in it, which is why conformity and cruelty tend to go hand-in-hand in the upper grades. Freely adapted from Rosalind Wiseman’s non-fiction book Queen Bees And Wannabes, which offers a parent’s guide to the harsh intricacies of “Girl World,” the acrid bubblegum satire Mean Girls isn’t content to accept this caste system as a given. In its sharpest moments, the film steps back and takes an anthropologist’s view of high school, with cliques as tribes and lunchroom tables as a set of clearly demarcated territories.
The home-schooled daughter of African zoologists, Lindsay Lohan keenly notes the connection between a suburban public school and the animal kingdom, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a gazelle among lions when she attends school herself. Adaptation comes quickly when “The Plastics,” a trio of popular girls led by Machiavellian blonde Rachel McAdams, recruit Lohan into their exclusive company, but their backstabbing ways inspire her to subvert from the inside. Backed by a pair of rebellious outcasts (Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese), Lohan works to end McAdams’ reign of terror by plotting an elaborate multi-front attack against her and her followers. But, like Martin Sheen hunting down Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, she risks becoming the vile creature she seeks to destroy.
Saturday Night Live news co-anchor Tina Fey, who wrote the script and appears in a key supporting turn, doesn’t give Wiseman’s concepts the full Luis Buñuel treatment they deserve, but she smuggles a few bitter insights into an often empty-headed subgenre. The best jokes riff on the arbitrary rules and trends that confine teenagers to the rigid social climate of an Edith Wharton novel, with minor fashion faux pas leading to poisonous gossip and even outright banishment. The film lacks the discipline to stay on point all the time, but Fey and director Mark S. Waters (Freaky Friday) have fun with offbeat throwaway touches, like burdening an already world-weary principal (Tim Meadows) with carpal tunnel syndrome, or making a star mathlete a “badass MC.” Considering the herd mentality of other PG-13 teen disposables, Mean Girls stands out like a “Floater” in Wiseman’s Girl World, confident enough to think for itself and still fit in with its peers.