In a canonical scene of Mean Girls, the 2004 cult classic directed by Mark Waters, one of North Shore High School’s “cool Asians”, Trang Pak, has a heart-to-heart with another girl in her clique. Their exchange in Vietnamese is subtitled in English: Pak is told she is jealous because men like her rival more. Her reply? “[N-word], please.”
That joke is one of the many scrapped from the new Mean Girls, set and released twenty years after the original. This is an updated, loosely rescripted retelling that takes after the critically acclaimed Broadway adaptation, which ran in 2018 and earned writer Tina Fey a Tony Award nomination.
For the dismally unattuned: a recap. Mean Girls is about a 16-year-old called Cady (played here by Angourie Rice), who spent years being home-schooled in Kenya because her mother is a scientific researcher. In the original film, her parents return to America and take Cady with them; in the musical and new movie, Cady is the one asking her mother to move them home. Her father, it seems, no longer exists. North Shore High School is archetypally American: diverse yet hierarchical, with the usual gatekeepers in the usual places. It is ruled with an iron-fist by Regina George (Renée Rapp), a hot and wealthy blonde who everyone hates but idolises. She is flanked by Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood; gossipy and solicitous) and Karen Smith (Avantika Vandanapu; sweet and thick). They all think Cady is hot enough to join their clique and recruit her.
Yet Cady is in fact spying on them for the friends whom she made earlier in her first week: Janice Ian (Auliʻi Cravalho; arty, possibly lesbian) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey; “too gay to function” – one of the original lines kept in the new script). Cady quickly falls for a senior in her Math class, Aaron Samuels (Christopher Briney), who happens to be Regina’s ex-boyfriend. When Regina finds out about Cady’s crush through Gretchen, she schmoozes Aaron at a Halloween party and wins him back, having previously dumped him for another senior. Cady, Janice and Damian plan to make Regina’s life hell, which ends up making everyone’s life hell – especially their own.
The original film had a near-constant voiceover from Cady, played by Lindsay Lohan. The new film drops this, but it has songs galore and most of them are pretty good. Some are even excellent, like ‘Sexy’, Karen’s feminist Halloween-themed solo (she defines feminism as being allowed to walk in shoes you can’t actually walk in, and then trips in high heels). That number, and others, make ingenious use of TikTok, now intrinsic to American high school culture. The Halloween song begins as a reel which Karen has to start over because she’s put “world peace” below “being sexy” in her list of rhyming priorities.
As expected, social media is central to this 2024 retelling. In the original, Regina loses her queen bee crown to Cady after she becomes fat . Tina Fey decided this was dated, and in this new tale Regina is cancelled after falling flat on her body during the school’s winter talent show. The videos go viral online. In the era of #bekind, it seems odd that woke high school kids would be so horridly trenchant, demonising a larger-than-normal Regina for being clumsy. The choreography across the film leaves a lot to be desired, and makes you long for the days of High School Musical where teenagers could actually dance.
The film wants you to think the ire directed towards Regina is just a pent-up desire for revenge. I find this hard to believe, because Regina seems okay. Sure, she was a bitch to former bestie Janice (there’s more backstory this time around and it’s deliciously catty), and although she is a cow to Gretchen, I forgive her. This time around Gretchen is irritating. She is fake and weak-willed and continues to lust after a loser who doesn’t even like her. Nodding to Cady’s time in the savannah Regina is introduced as an “apex predator”. But really, she seems quite harmless. Better yet, she stands up for her friends (even if they are just minions) and her house looks like AI was asked to build a home for cyborg Barbie. “I’m a massive deal!” she self-mythologises. To me it seems like everyone else is a massive weakling.
And none more so than Cady, shrunk from the vampish Lindsey Lohan to an Amy Adams-esque simp who loves Neil deGrasse Tyson. The original Aaron Samuels was hot enough for us to fall in love as Cady did: new Aaron is, well, not, and Cady’s pining feels stupid. It does, however, make for a delightful number in which she explains why she is so good at maths (unlike love, it is a skill she could always control). In other news, Kevin G is still disgusting (his business card now reads ‘public figure’), paedo teachers are out and Tim Meadows and Tina Fey are back as the Principal and the maths teacher respectively
Mean Girls – built on archetypes – is perfectly suited for a musical. A hollow, explicative line from Cady’s mother, “I have been selfish putting my research ahead of your social and emotional development,” would be awkward elsewhere but here is decidedly funny. This is prime real estate for the playhouse, and to that end I have booked a ticket for the West End production commencing this June.
But does it work behind the silver screen? Mostly, yes: but whilst duly trying to dust off the original’s more problematic tropes, it still produces a slapdash, unconvincing self-parody. Janice is too pretty, Aaron too normcore, Regina too much of a rockstar. Karen, the resident bimbo, is the best thing about it and needs more screen time. ‘Plastic is forever’, a notebook cut-out says on the edge of the movie poster. Plastic, perhaps – but fetch? Time for Fey to retire her franchise, I fear.
‘Mean Girls’ is in cinemas from 19th January.