2004 — a lot has changed since then. George W. Bush was still in his first term, AOL Instant Messenger was the closest thing we had to social media, and the first iPhone was still years away from release. Despite all this, in a lot of ways, we weren’t so different. More importantly, high school wasn’t so different. Mean Girls is the type of movie that feels very much of its time while also resembling a work that could easily be dropped either in theaters or on Netflix tomorrow and have a similar cultural impact. Watching it today was a reminder of said impact and confirmation that this is a film we will continue to watch for years to come.
Mean Girls carries a legacy of being a lightning in a bottle scenario. It was an amalgamation of talent coming together at the perfect point in their careers, in many cases doing the best work they ever would. Produced by Lorne Michaels, the movie featured several Saturday Night Live stars ready to flex on the big screen, along with a slew of young adult talent to exceptionally characterize their fictional “North Shore High School.” Making the school feel lived in and authentic is essential to the film succeeding. Tina Fey’s writing and characterization may be the ultimate star of the film in this regard, elevating it above its peers in the high school comedy genre of that time.
On top of that, Fey leads the charge of SNL actors on screen, starring as the cool yet washed up thirty-something teacher Ms. Norbury. Others include: Tim Meadows as the hilarious Principal Duvall in what is unequivocally the most memorable turn of his career; a young Amy Poehler just a couple years into her SNL run providing some over-the-top laughs as Regina George’s diva mom; and Ana Gasteyer as Cady’s mom with a much more low key role that suits her more dry humor. The Saturday Night Live movies (those produced by Lorne himself) have a troubled history, with maybe only Wayne’s World (1992) and Tommy Boy (1995) achieving success equal to that of Mean Girls. What this movie does so well is it has these four actors fill roles in the margins in a film otherwise centered on high school students, illuminating it with some more adult perspective — getting older, relating to the youth and fighting for relevance.
With all that being said, the Saturday Night Live cast members are just a highly punctuated seasoning peppering the deliciously juicy entrée that is the high school drama at hand. The story follows Cady Heron, a high school immigrant from Africa dropped into the high stakes social hierarchy of the North Shore of Chicago. Lindsay Lohan plays Cady, fresh off star-making roles for Disney in Freaky Friday (2003) and Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (2004). This was the perfect role for her to show all the makings of a superstar young actress and she ran with it, devouring every bit of screen-time she had and putting American audiences on notice. Unfortunately, the rise to stardom would end just as soon as it began with Lohan slipping into bouts with substance abuse shortly afterward that would derail her career permanently. For that reason, Mean Girls stands as a sort of relic, a time capsule into the image of Lindsay Lohan at her absolute peak, a capture of the moment when she seemed unstoppable; when you flip on this movie and hit play, for the next couple hours, she really is.
During the film, Cady’s attention is split between her two very different social circles, the first of which includes Janis Ian, the misunderstood outcast, and Damian, the hilarious and flamboyant big teddy bear. Together, the three of them make a supremely charming and lovable collective. Cady would do good to stick with them and coast through high school on the outside looking in. Woefully, she gets sucked into the much more dramatic and attention seeking orbit of “The Plastics.”
In “The Plastics,” Cady joins Regina George, queen diva of the school and de facto villain of the movie, and Gretchen Wieners and Karen Smith, Regina’s two unabashed followers/sidekicks. The feeling of “The Plastics'” hold over the school as the popular trendsetters overcomes Cady and she becomes enamored with their life, leaving her more genuine friendship with Janis and Damian in the dust. This is a compelling construction for the film and it acts as the steady backbone to the fluidly paced proceedings. It is a very relatable and sympathetic conundrum for a young person; do you stay true to yourself and stay by the side of your fellow down to Earth comrades or do you jump at the first opportunity to become more powerful, more popular in the process, even if it means completely selling out? It is a very universal point of entry for a high school movie and it has continued to make the film instantly approachable all these years later.
The final phase of building the film’s legacy lies in its memorable scenes, quotable lines and delivery, and its transition into the pop culture zeitgeist early on in the internet era. To this day, the film gets quoted on a regular basis as teenagers from that time have carried its memory into their adult lives. For those who came of age with this movie in their lives, it serves as a reminder of their youth and what it was like to be in high school before smartphones. Teenagers today, however, should still be able to watch and see some of their lives in the movie. It translates the high school experience from one generation to another by committing to shared concepts like wanting to fit in, finding your place in the world and being comfortable with who you are. Mean Girls doesn’t alienate anyone. Rather, it brings us together by comforting us and challenging us to accept our own peculiarities. Cady Heron settles into who she wants to be by the end of the film and even though life didn’t have a storybook ending for Lindsay Lohan herself, we still have Mean Girls to hold onto tightly, cherishing the perfect time that was and recapturing the magic found inside the 2004 North Shore High School. It doesn’t get anymore fetch than that.
‘Mean Girls’ is currently streaming on HBO