Teenage boys might be sulky and thuggish, but everyone knows that teenage girls are superior when it comes to the refinements of psychological torture. Mean Girls (12A), Mark Waters’ high-school survival story, fizzes with peculiarly feminine evil, of the kind that comes dripping through a pillowy smirk garnished with baby-pink lipgloss.
Our field-guide in the world of warring American schoolgirl cliques is Cady (Lindsay Lohan), a 15-year-old who has been raised – and home-tutored – in the African bush by her zoologist parents. Bush life has not prepared her for the jungle that is North Shore High School, a conceit that was laboured just enough to make me grateful that Waters didn’t take it any further.
Mean Girls is inspired by the factions described in Rosalind Wiseman’s best-selling dissection of vicious teenage mores: Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence. At North Shore High, blonde Regina George (Rachel McAdams) is the undisputed Queen Bee of a clique called the Plastics: a strutting, bitchy trio with super-skimpy designer clothes, dazzling teeth and cleavages that would do a Las Vegas pole-dancer proud.
Regina recruits Cady into her ghastly little gang, but Cady has a secret agenda – to infiltrate the Plastics at the behest of her “real” friends, the sardonic Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and the wisecracking, gay Damian (a scene-stealing Daniel Franzese). The plan disintegrates once Cady develops a taste for the ego boost that being in the Plastics brings, and falls under Regina’s thrall even while plotting to destroy her.
Lindsay Lohan, a perky redhead on the accessible side of pretty, is Hollywood’s teen queen of the moment: she played Jamie Lee Curtis’s daughter in Freaky Friday (also directed by Waters), in which a feuding mother and daughter swap bodies in the service of greater mutual understanding. But while Freaky Friday tended to wallow amiably in the warm generalities of teenage life, this is much crueller and more sharply observed, thanks to the acute ear for teen-speak demonstrated by its screenwriter Tina Fey – a star and writer for the satirical television show Saturday Night Live – who also plays a teacher, Ms Norbury.
The film’s fizziest performance comes from McAdams as Regina, a blonde with the body of a supermodel and the mind of a KGB chief. Regina scuppers Cady’s chances of going out with the decent, rather dopey Aaron (Jonathan Bennett) – the school hunk, and Regina’s ex – by airily telling him that Cady obsessively writes “Mrs Aaron Samuels” across all her notebooks.
Yet Mean Girls is not solely a high camp bitch-fest: the spectacle of Regina’s frantically youthful mother and gyrating pre-pubescent sister – both desperate to emulate the style of sexy teenagers – carries the sharp whiff of social commentary. Inevitably, the film slips towards a rather schmaltzy, it’s-really-nice-to-be-nice ending – but it’s the memory of the high school piranha pool that lingers.