You wouldn’t think to look for profound moral observations in a film designed to appeal to modern teenagers. Yet Mean Girls, the latest offering from director Mark Waters, really hits the spot. A large part of the film’s appeal lies with the remarkable young actress Lindsay Lohan, who last year starred in another offering from Walters, Freaky Friday, in which a stroppy teenager swaps bodies with her middle-aged mother (a part much relished by Jamie Lee Curtis as she pouts and postures: “You are ruuuining my lifeuh!!”) By the end of the film, each has learned to empathise better with the other. An update of a movie originally made several decades ago, it has a surprisingly benign heart.
Mean Girls packs more of a punch, however, largely thanks to a superb screenplay by Tina Fey, who herself plays the part of a teacher at the privileged Chicago high school where the drama unfolds. The action centres around Cady Heron (Lohan), an innocent home-schooler whose previous experience of life has taken place in Africa, and who now enters the mainstream system as her parents settle back in the United States. The anthropology of the school is rapidly revealed, with all the groups and cliques — the nerds, the swots, the ultra-intelligent Asians, the laid-back Afros, the freaks, the rejects, and ... the plastics.
It is a pair of “freaks”, a goth girl and an aspirational gay boy, who first befriend Cady and coach her on this tribal system. Their pet hate is the plastics, a group of wannabes centering on a spoiled blonde bombshell named Regina George. Her new friends persuade Cady to infiltrate the plastics, in order to expose them.
This plot line is used to huge comic advantage, as we encounter the nauseating family set-up behind the Alpha girl — a brilliant piece of social satire on permanently juvenile, and permissive, parents. Then there is the interaction between the plastics themselves, all buzzing around the queen bee, while secretly resenting her at the same time. While the animal behaviour comparisons can seem a little forced, the film provides a hard-hitting portrayal of power and dependence among the privileged young. One of the best lines comes from the black headmaster, who faced with a mass cat fight among his female students, notes despairingly that he didn’t escape from Chicago’s mean streets in order to face this level of aggro in a wealthy suburban school.
But the best part of Mean Girls is the realistic moral complexity as Cady seeks to forge her own identity in the midst of this political scrum. Initially committed to her friends’agenda (search out and destroy that “life-wrecker”), she ends up being corrupted on two levels at once. Regina exerts a real fascination for her, and in spite of herself she enjoys fitting in with the upper caste in all their vacuous glamour. At the same time, the “mission” blinds Cady to the real consequences of sowing discord and hatred, even among those who appear to deserve it. She ends up creating total chaos, and losing her own identity in the process. The fact that it is through the eyes of a boy she likes that Cady’s loss of integrity is shown up, only serves to intensify the moral of the story — that you cannot defeat evil by doing evil. The film builds up to a grand catharsis in which each girl is encouraged to examine her own conscience before a final twist ensures that it hits home at more than a superficial level. Brilliant stuff.
Not all teen flicks are of this calibre, but the few that are demonstrate that some of the most perceptive social commentary can be delivered in this arena. Ten Things I Hate About You, which was aimed at an older audience (some of the language, not to mention the gags, is not for fragile ears), reprises The Taming of the Shrew to devastating effect. Again the comedy doesn’t stop at the level of facile satire, though Cat and Bianca’s obstetrician father, enforcing his moral strictures through maniacal depictions of teenage pregnancy and drug abuse that he witnesses every day, has some of the best lines in the movie. And again, beyond the high comedy, the moral of the tale is delivered in a surprisingly subtle form. In terms of its own idiom, it bears honourable comparison with its rollicking Shakespearean model.
One of my daughter’s friends said she thought Mean Girls should be required viewing for all teenage girls. Likewise, Ten Things I Hate About You should be required viewing for all sexeducation “experts”. In any case, both films are endowed with a pretty impressive rock music score, which has to sweeten the pill.