Teen queens and shades of green

Mean Girls exposes the down and dirty side of high school hierarchies

From porn sites to chat rooms, teen girls seem to have America in an agitated twist. Everyone wants to figure out what makes girls tick, and those who don't just want to get in their pants.

An America already stoopid-crazy about teen flesh can now add Mean Girls to its playlist of comedies featuring bitchy popular girls who get their comeuppance.

The teen bitch comedy, from Heathers to Jawbreaker, operates from the same frisson of delight that propels every Halloween and Scream franchise, in which the crazed killer does gory damage to uppity prom queens and promiscuous party girls. We are a hypocritical culture as obsessed with watching the sadistic hijinks of teen dream queens as we are obsessed with relishing the moment when these objects of our visual infatuation get what's coming to 'em.

It's probably thanks to "Saturday Night Live" writer and cast member Tina Fey's screenwriting that Mean Girls is a funnier and more insightful movie than your average teen comedy. Though Fey probably works out some of her own "mean girl" issues and indulges in some tired "get the bitches" cliches, she keeps things lively enough to offset the "same old, same old" phenomenon.

Regina (Rachel McAdams) is the blond, evil ringleader of the reigning high school clique, worshiped and feared by the school's populace. Regina's charisma is so powerful she has transformed even her bimbo mother into a wannabe acolyte and has convinced her parents to vacate their McMansion's master bedroom so the pampered princess can spread out.

Regina is threatened with dethronement when a new sheriff in town prepares to oust the alpha honey. A hottie in nerd's clothing, Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is a home-schooled academic's daughter who's been living with her parents in Africa and is unfamiliar with the complex caste system of an American high school.

Cady approaches her new school like an anthropological study. In amusing fantasy sequences, the bizarre rituals of the high school lunchroom and the ferocious girl quest for power are likened to the chest-beating grunts and butt sniffing of beasts in the African wild.

Cady is set up by two artsy types — sardonic goth Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and irony-generating gay kid Damian (Daniel Franzese) — to observe the Plastics, as Janis has dubbed them, in their native habitat and report back.

The ho-hum, predictable machinations involved in unmasking the Plastics as grade-A beeyatches are less interesting than the film's ability to nail teenage culture, especially the American high schooler's infatuation with hip-hop. The school math geek, a beanpole East Indian, is obsessed with rap, and his dick-grabbing, profanity-laced talent-show act is a hilarious display of teen nasty lurking inside a baby-faced guise. In this by-turns innocent and wiseacre teen world, the coach is boffing a member of the Asian girl clique, and the catatonically mild-mannered school principle, Mr. Duvall (Tim Meadows), brandishes a baseball bat to quell a girl fight.

Mean Girls' insights into the top-dog girl psyche are gleaned from a work of pop psychology about the snake pit of high school girl rituals: Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence. In keeping with that sociological vibe, Mean Girls features a hilarious impromptu therapy session organized by cool math teacher Ms. Norbury (Fey) in which a gym full of girls have to "express" themselves in order to purge meanness from their ranks.

Mean Girls takes Wiseman's scare-the-parents tack, declaws it, and offers America the soothing good news that right always triumphs in the end. Mean Girls is a clean-cut, perfumed look into middle-class teendom far from the nightmarish vision of Thirteen.

Even at their dumbest (like the Jewish princess Plastic who boasts that her daddy invented the Toaster Strudel), the teenagers are endearingly neurotic. And where most teen films tend to make grown-ups into doltish blockheads, here you can see the "SNL"-style quirky personalities moving beneath the skin of the grown-ups. These real-world adults get carpal tunnel syndrome, work double shifts to pay the bills and make the teens look like frivolous, well, teens. There is a subversive message at work: Buck up, teens, your problems are idiotic. Wait until divorce and back rent come knocking on your door.


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