The circle of life now is book to movie to musical to movie. Tina Fey’s beloved 2004 comedy Mean Girls, loosely inspired by a non-fiction book about high school hierarchy, has had a long and charmed life, with a veritable empire built from it. Now it’s back, twenty years later, and on the big screen instead of the originally planned Paramount+ launch (where, charitably, no one would have watched it).
Of course, Paramount has forgotten to promote the movie as a musical, even if there’s a note in the A. Trailers didn’t have any songs in it and tried to cut around choreography. The movie itself is missing 14 songs, approximately half of the show. And the story itself has almost all of the same problems as the original movie did. In many ways, while not a straight (ha) remake, Mean Girls is almost the original movie with a couple of songs slapped into it; whether that works depends on if you liked the movie in the first place and if you’re not so wedded to it that you can’t stand to see it in different hands. It’s a delicate balancing act.
Cady Heron (Angourie Rice, TV’s The Last Thing He Told Me) leaves Kenya after 12 years and is instantly thrown into the US public school system. After initially befriending weird kids Janis ‘Imi’ike (Auli’i Cravalho, TV’s The Power) and the too gay to function Damien (Jaquel Spivey, Broadway’s A Strange Loop), she finds herself falling in with the school’s ultimate clique, the mean girls known as the Plastics: queen bee Regina George (Renée Rapp, TV’s The Sex Lives of College Girls), desperate-to-be-loved Gretchen Weiners (Bebe Wood, TV’s Love, Victor) and airhead Karen Shetty (Avantika, Senior Year). Caught between true friends, the allure of popularity, and her crush on Aaron in AP Calc (Christopher Briney, TV’s The Summer I Turned Pretty), Cady has to decide whether she just wants to be herself or the meanest girl of them all.
Mean Girls of course forces the audience to face their mortality: isn’t one of the appeals of a film that it is crystallised in amber, a time capsule of the era in which it was produced and released? Mean Girls 2024 doesn’t entirely come across as “Regina George get iPad”, but it’s a close call. All of these movies, musical or not, now have to have some form of social media montage. Of course, the weapon of choice here is TikTok, which means that Mean Girls 2024 will soon be dated in its own, more specific way (if you question that, look at how a social media backbone was able to undo fifteen years of brand building in less than twelve months; look at how the subject of a David Fincher movie is now derided as the exclusive domain of the old and out of touch).
It’s exactly the same story as the original, with all of the same story beats. Fey’s (TV’s Mr. Mayor) new script has removed most of the homophobia and racism and retained all of her slightly dubious 20 year old feminism credentials; often the moral of a scene boils down to “feminism is when you choose not to wear high heels”.
The usually reliable Rice is written mainly as a cipher, which becomes frustrating at the heel turn moment, but much of the rest of the cast gets to shine. As Regina, Rapp carries most of the movie on her back. She gets the most songs and the most pointed dialogue, and comes across more as a force of nature than a malevolent entity. Busy Philipps is perfectly cast as Mrs. George even if the blocking of her scenes don’t make sense, and Avantika is a revelation as Karen: this is an actress guaranteed to be able to take audiences on face journeys in years to come, and her “sexy cancer” line is among the best in the movie. While Cravalho is cheerfully demented as the newly renamed Janis ‘Imi’ike, her performance can’t cover what Mean Girls has, for two decades, been desperate for you to ignore: Janis is the story’s tertiary antagonist. She puts Cady up to performing all sorts of devious acts and is horrified when she’s caught in the fallout, and despite the wounds she’s suffered in the past her actions are just as bad as any of Cady’s. Spivey gives his all to a role that is largely reduced to window dressing in the interests of bringing the movie in only fifteen minutes longer than the original.
For the music, Fey kept it in the family: her husband, Jeff Richmond (TV’s Mulligan) is the composer, and he provides workable tunes for Nell Benjamin’s mostly fun lyrics. Despite the musical guts of the show being ripped out, the showcase for Regina, “Meet the Plastics” remains, and Rapp embodies it. Ironically, the rest of the song, the parts that introduce the rest of the Plastics, are cut for time. This is a recurring theme for the film.
You can make a musical without embarrassing the audience, but one of the songs that did make it into the movie is “Apex Predator”, which features jungle animal choreography that feels more than a little, as the kids might say, “cringe”. This is in stark contrast to one of the only other true ensemble pieces, “Revenge Party”, where the artifice doesn’t seem self-conscious and debut feature directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. have a sense of fun about it. Despite what they may tell you, Mean Girls is not an actual sociological research document, and you should never treat it as such.
Mean Girls is special because so few musicals make it to the screen at all, let alone high school musicals. Mean Girls has two contemporaries that would be far better candidates for the transition from stage to screen: Be More Chill, which had a groundswell of viral support and a tragic real life backstory into the deal, and Heathers, which was ironically co-written by Benjamin’s husband. Heathers is, of course, the ur-film to which Mean Girls is so often compared, and the latter’s satire feels all the more toothless for it. It also has the benefit of being a period piece that doesn’t have to attempt to fit in.
Mean Girls was a twenty year old movie that never got the chance to toil in obscurity, and now it’s back in a form only marginally different to its original incarnation; any real changes have been cut for time. In a sleepy season with little competition beyond bees and prestige films released insultingly late in your territory, Mean Girls, despite its drawbacks, has compelling performances from all three Plastics, and the vibe is amiable enough.
Mean Girls opened in Australian cinemas on January 11, 2024.
Directed by: Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.
Starring: Angourie Rice, Renee Rapp, Auli’i Cravalho, Christopher Briney, Tim Meadows and Tina Fey.