"Cutting social commentary"; "acutely hilarious sociology"; "a harbinger of hope ... for future feminist comedies." These were some of the peculiar accolades bestowed upon the movie Mean Girls when it opened in theaters. Why did critics accord it such stature? Doubtless because it was, in the words of one, the "best teen comedy ever adapted from a sociological study." In actuality, the source material--Rosalind Wiseman's book Queen Bees and Wannabes--is not a sociological study but a parenting guide, and Mean Girls is in no meaningful way "adapted" from it. Screenwriter Tina Fey appropriates a few of Wiseman's terms (e.g., "Girl World") and has a couple of scenes that relate to details in the book. But the film's claim that it is "based" on Queen Bees is only slightly less silly than pretending American Pie is derived from The Professional Pastry Chef.
Still, why quibble? As a marketing exercise, the cross-branding was a masterstroke: Wiseman's book, a former New York Times best-seller, was able to pick up a whole new wave of paperback readers, and the film was able to present itself as not only entertaining but Important, a worthy addition to the burgeoning field of Girls Studies (Reviving Ophelia, Fast Girls, Odd Girl Out, etc.). Which is too bad, because shorn of its pretensions Mean Girls, now out on video, is a quite enjoyable coming-of-age comedy, nicely written by Fey and skillfully directed by Mark Waters (Freaky Friday).
Sixteen-year-old Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) arrives in high school after years of homeschooling (her parents were zoologists in Africa), and is soon approached both by a pair of misfits (who notice she's out of place and in need of guidance) and by a trio of beauty queens (who notice she's enough of a hottie for them to hang out with). This latter group is the Plastics, the most exclusive clique in the school, feared, loathed, and envied by their classmates in more or less equal parts. Though Cady is somewhat put off by the Plastics' casual cruelty (and complicated Girl World rules: "You can't wear a tank top two days in a row, and you can only wear a pony tail once a week," etc.), the misfits persuade her to join the clique in order to spy on its members and reveal their secrets.
Cady suffers guilt pangs over her double-agenthood until head Plastic Regina (Rachel McAdams) seduces the hunky senior she'd promised to help Cady woo. Out for blood, Cady goes on the attack--surreptitiously, of course--offering Regina "face cream" that is in fact foot lotion ("Your face smells like peppermint!" her boyfriend enthuses) and "diet bars" made to help starving Africans gain weight. But as Cady journeys deeper into this adolescent heart of darkness she, like Marlow, becomes what she set out to destroy: a selfish, underhanded teen tyrant, obsessed with her looks and forgetful of her geeky friends. Not to worry, though: Cady turns the boat around and heads back downriver in time for a happy ending that squanders what little moral and dramatic tension the film had accumulated.
If Mean Girls sounds more like a conventional, even generic, teen comedy than a scathing social satire, that's because it is. Though the movie occasionally seems ready to bite, ultimately it lacks the fangs of a Heathers or Election. This lack of nerve doesn't make Mean Girls a bad movie--the film moves along at a healthy comic clip until the end--but it keeps it from being memorable. Unlike the Plastics, Mean Girls would rather be liked than feared and, as Wiseman's book informs us, that's no way to become a Queen Bee.
Those looking for a more original take on the travails of American girlhood might instead try Saved!, released on video this week. For the most part, it follows the same narrative schematic as Mean Girls: A pretty-but-approachable protagonist (this time Jenna Malone) is torn between her allegiance to a popular clique headed by a domineering beauty (Mandy Moore) and her friendship with a pair of misfits (Eva Amurri, Macaulay Culkin); she competes with the Head Girl for the love of a good boy (Patrick Fugit); in the end, good triumphs and evil is badly humiliated. But writer-director Brian Dannelly and co-writer Michael Urban give the formula two new twists: First, Malone's character, Mary, is pregnant (and not nearly so immaculately as her namesake); second, she attends an evangelical high school.
Mary's problems begin with her boyfriend's revelation that he's gay. Upon receiving the news Mary nearly drowns, in the process mistaking the handyman who rescues her for a vision of Jesus that tells her she must "help" her boyfriend. She tries to do this the only way she can think of, and the results are about what you'd expect: The boyfriend, still gay, is sent off to a Christian institution for sexual reprogramming, and Mary finds herself in a family way. Making matters considerably worse is the fact that Mary attends a religious academy in which social status is determined largely by the extent to which one is down with Jesus. Until now, Mary's popularity had been ensured by her membership in the Christian Jewels, a "girl gang for Jesus" headed by Moore's Hilary Faye. But her boyfriend's quasi-expulsion and her own deep secret start her questioning her life. Unlike Mean Girls's Cady, Mary is not an outsider venturing inward, but an insider falling out.
It's a great idea for a film, and for the first 45 minutes or so it hums along with a near-perfect balance of empathy and satire. (Spotting Mary sneaking into a downtown clinic, Amurri explains to Culkin, "There's only one reason Christian girls come down to the Planned Parenthood." "She's planting a pipe bomb?" he replies.) Dannelly spent two years at a Baptist high school in Baltimore, and between that experience and his subsequent research--which included perusing religious chat rooms and attending Christian rock concerts--he has an exceptional feel for the odd intersection of evangelism and youth culture, a place where adolescent excess and rebellion are channeled into worship and conformity. At the first assembly of the school year, the principal (Martin Donovan) exhorts the chanting student body to "Get our Christ on" and "Kick it, Jesus-style."
Unfortunately, in its latter half Saved! loses its footing, its sharp satire gradually devolving into rather dull parody, and its message becoming heavy-handed and obnoxious. In typical fashion, the pious are shown to be hypocrites and the cast-outs--pregnant Mary, her misfit friends, her gay boyfriend (and his new boyfriend), and her widowed, carnally hopeful mother (the always adorable Mary-Louise Parker)--are revealed to be the true vessels of Christian mercy. The film ends with a celebratory scene of Mary giving birth surrounded by these loving heretics. The clear implication is that only the most intolerant of zealots would find anything other than joy in the prospect of this 17-year-old's unwed motherhood. When Hollywood presents a film like this as a "sensitive" take on religion, it's a reminder of why evangelicals flocked to The Passion of the Christ.
A third recent entry in the teen-girl genre, Sleepover, won't be available on video for several more weeks, but that's okay: You won't want to rent it anyway. The movie follows similar contours to Mean Girls and Saved!, but its protagonists are a few years younger and its target audience at least that. So, unless you are a girl between the ages of, say, 8 and 13, you can pass on this one. (If you are a girl that age and are reading this column, your tastes are probably too deviant for you to enjoy Sleepover either.) For a more mature audience (i.e., me), what was most interesting about Sleepover was a disjunction between its message and its packaging. The story concerns a scavenger hunt between two groups of junior-high girls--with the winners earning places at the best lunch table in high school. The Good Girls consist of Julie, the Nervous One (Spy Kids's Alexa Vega); Hannah, the Best Friend; Yancy, the Chubby One; and Farrah, the Nondescript One Thrown in to Make It an Even Four. By any imaginable criterion--screen time, number of lines, centrality to the plot--Yancy is a more important character than Farrah. She's the only girl to have a subplot independent of the main, Julie-centric storyline--a subplot whose moral, unsurprisingly, is that plump can be pretty, too. The movie's credits, however, have a different lesson to offer: The young actress who plays Yancy, Kalli Flynn Childress, is the only one of the four not to get star billing. (Indeed, her name appears below a half-dozen more peripheral characters.) More telling still, she's the only one of the four characters not to appear on the DVD cover. In the kinder world of cinema, fat girls may be beautiful; to the Hollywood publicity mill, they're still invisible. That's sociology.
The Home Movies List:
High school nightmares
Carrie (1976). Which is rarer, a good Stephen King movie or a good Brian De Palma one? Carrie gives both men's batting averages a needed lift. Had more people seen it, there would be no need for an anti-bullying movement.
Three O'Clock High (1987). The best high-school comedy that no one saw. Though TV veteran Phil Joanou is credited as director, the movie has cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld's fingerprints all over it, with giddy camera-work reminiscent of his efforts on Raising Arizona.
Heathers (1989). Uneven but unforgettable, this is the kind of subversive comedy Mean Girls imagined itself to be. It seemed to promise great things from leads Winona Ryder and (especially) Christian Slater, but both have disappointed, on screen and off.
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (Seasons 1-3, 1997-2000). Here, the nightmares are literal, though perhaps best understood as a metaphor for the typical teen experience. After graduation the show lost its way a bit, but the first three seasons are sublime.
Election (1999). I'm still hoping for a stage version (perhaps a musical?) in which ever-adolescent Broderick plays the Reese Witherspoon part. In the meantime, let's hope she didn't peak with this film: She's young enough that we could be in store for a lot more Legally Blondes.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.