Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bitchfest Movie Marathon! - "Mean Girls"

Bitchfest movies are all about women being awful to one another. I've chosen five films that I consider to be the best of the genre. Following last week's first installment (1939's "The Women"), I now present ~

Mean Girls 2004 / Dir: Mark Waters

SYNOPSIS: Having just relocated from rural Africa to the midwestern 'burbs, formerly home-schooled teenager Cady (Lindsay Lohan) begins attending a public high school. As she navigates this unfamiliar social territory, she quickly befriends a pair of outcasts - goth Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and "too gay to function" Damian (Daniel Franzese) - while simultaneously gaining the attention of The Plastics, a crew of snooty popular girls. Janis and Damian encourage Cady to infiltrate the Plastics and get some dirt on vicious ringleader Regina (Rachel McAdams). Cady initially takes the Plastics' offer of friendship at face value, so she's devastated when Regina moves in on her dreamy crush, Aaron (Jonathan Bennett). Cady decides to take revenge on her rival while pretending to be her best friend. In doing so, she transforms into the same sort of mean girl that she's trying to defeat.

One of my favorite pseudo-intellectual activities is helping my exhausted grad student instructor friends pick film clips to screen during their Friday classes. This was how I was able to convince my husband to show a scene from "Mean Girls" to his sociology students (it is now regularly featured in his Intro to Soc course). The film offers excellent examples of group assimilation in the context of a very clever and entertaining story.

I would expect nothing less from screenwriter Tina Fey, whose piercing, often hilarious social observations help make "30 Rock" the funniest sitcom in the history of television. Her screenplay is based on Rosalind Wiseman's nonfiction bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World. Fey uses Cady's fish-out-of-water perspective to render a darkly humorous examination of girl world politics, from duplicitous three-way phone calls to unspoken rules about sex and dating. But what makes "Mean Girls" most interesting is that it transcends the typical Bitchfest good-girl-wins/bad-girl-loses scenario by demonstrating that all of us have the potential to be both types at the same time.

Lohan's gradual transition from subtly attractive math nerd to vapid hottie is both believable and sympathetic, particularly when she observes that, "it was better being in the Plastics, hating life, than to not be in at all. Because being with the Plastics was like being famous." Though Cady makes several bad decisions along her girl world journey, it's hard to imagine oneself behaving differently, especially when handicapped with her inexperience.* McAdams's Regina is refreshingly complex as a villain who is more angry than evil; you spend most of the film longing for her comeuppance, and when it's finally delivered (in the style of a too-bad-to-be-true violent fantasy), you realize that it's disproportionate to her sins. Amy Poehler's appearance as Regina's embarrassing, youth-obsessed, "cool" mom (the kind who is quick to offer alcohol to teens because, "if you're going to drink I'd rather you do it in the house") provides some of the film's biggest laughs, as well as some insight into the origin of her daughter's bitterness.

In one of the best scenes, math teacher Ms. Norbury (played by Fey) hosts an emergency all-girl assembly after the school wide distribution of the Plastics' slam book incites a riot. Ms. Norbury forces her young charges to calmly confront each other about what's really bothering them. The scene is brilliant, not only because it contains the film's best line - "Somebody wrote in that book that I'm lying about being a virgin because I use super-jumbo tampons. But I can't help it if I've got a heavy flow and a wide-set vagina!" - but also because it makes two key points; 1) that cattiness isn't a victimless crime and 2) that nearly all victims are also perpetrators, and vice versa.

Tune in for the next installment, 2002's "Chicago"

*Which reminds me, Lohan's critics (many of whom seem to think that she owes them a personal apology) might benefit from a second viewing of this film. She's a good actress who got very famous at a young age while being saddled with horrible parents. Could you do any better in her place?

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