One observation about Mean Girls that alluded me when I initially viewed it over 10 years ago was that this film, in many ways, feels like a Saturday Night Live production. One of the rare good ones, I’ll add. The film was written by SNL castmember Tina Fey. Other alums, like Anna Gasteyer (Cady Heron’s mother), Amy Poehler (Regina’s mom), and Tim Meadows (Principal Duvall), pop up in various supporting roles. Everyone is under the umbrella of famed SNL creator Lorne Michaels, who serves as the film’s producer.
With that in mind, Mean Girls has remnants of a successful late-night sketch comedy skit. Its characters are recognizable, albeit likable, types, there’s a heavily sarcastic tone in the comedy, and Fey’s script blends light-hearted comedy with darker themes regarding the cliquey, judgmental culture of high school. You factor in a litany of memorable performances from a diversely generational cast, and it’s no wonder Mean Girls is revered by 90s babies the same way John Hughes movies are beloved by the previous generation.
Based on Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Mean Girls introduces us to Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan), a 16-year-old girl with unique life experiences under her belt. She is going to high school for the first time after being homeschooled by her parents in Africa as a child. Now, in the affluent suburb of Evanston, IL, she will get a crash-course on what American high school is all about. A rocky first day sets the stage for a better week, where she meets a goth outcast named Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and her gay best friend, Damian (Daniel Franzese). Janis and Damian take Cady by the hand to show her that the jungles of an American public school aren’t totally different from the African jungle.
From her two new tour guides, Cady learns the high school pecking order, which is rife with jocks and cheerleaders on one side of the lunchroom and math nerds, loners, and “sexually active band geeks” on the other. The clique of girls that run the school are known as the “Plastics,” led by Regina George (Rachel McAdams), a living, breathing Barbie doll. Her two cohorts, the innocent Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert) and the dimwitted Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). They, meaning Regina, take an immediate liking to Cady and allow her to sit at their lunch-table. Cady feels uncomfortable getting entangled with the Plastics, but Janis and Damian insist with the hopes their newfound friend will be able to dig up some dirt on the girls they can use as blackmail.
Soon, Cady falls for Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), one of Regina’s ex-boyfriends, which, coupled with Cady’s rising popularity in school, creates friction amongst her new gal-pals.
Another secret to Mean Girls‘ success might be the comfort level between Lindsay Lohan and director Mark Waters (the two collaborated on Freaky Friday just a year prior). Waters, along with Fey’s screenplay, allows Cady to grow and develop both positively and negatively over the course of 90 minutes without losing the clear and evident good-heartedness inside her that makes her likable. Lohan’s inherent likability makes her fit Cady perfectly. Rachel McAdams’ Regina is the polar opposite of Lohan’s Cady. McAdams is in full-blown bitch-mode as she sinks her teeth into every catty, petty line of gossip and uncouth insult directed at her peers. Like any great villain, especially in a high school movie, you loathe Regina, but you can’t take your eyes off her.
It would be unfair not to give credit to Lizzy Caplan and Daniel Franzese, particularly Caplan, who has one of the best moments in the entire film during an all-girl gym meeting when each young woman is forced onto the stage to apologize to her female peers. Caplan’s Janis goes rogue after placing her note-cards into her shirt pocket, and launches into a tyrannical spiel that demystifies the okey-doke her and Cady pulled on Regina. It’s hilariously cut-throat, and Caplan shines in selling both the hurt she experienced and the sweet revenge she finally got.
The adults in the school are a mix of adults you’d typically see in ether Saturday Night Live skits or on Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide. Meadows’ Principal Duvall couldn’t appear to be less interested in the day-to-day operations of high school if he tried, but Tina Fey’s Ms. Norbury, the math teacher, is equal parts sass and heart, as she leads the charge for the aforementioned gymnasium airing of grievances. Amy Poehler also earns laughs as Regina’s mom, who oozes the personality, or lack thereof, of someone who peaked in high school.
Although Mean Girls was initially chided for its sentimental conclusion, especially in contrast to the snarky tone it maintains during its first two acts, I ultimately believe that it works, largely thanks to Cady’s perceptive line: “Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a teen film made in the modern day with that level of insight, let alone the endearing, enviable, and still-ongoing cultural impact of this one, which it emphatically deserves.
NOTE: As of this writing, Mean Girls is available to stream on Paramount+.
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tim Meadows, Tina Fey, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Franzese, Jonathan Bennett, Lacey Chabert, Amanda Seyfried, Ana Gasteyer, Neil Flynn, and Amy Poehler. Directed by: Mark Waters.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!