MEAN GIRLS Drags the Movie Musical Into the Viral Age

In some ways, stories of adolescent melodrama are universal. In other ways, they are definitively generational. Each new crop of teenagers have their own unique concerns and idiosyncratic ways of navigating the world. But sometimes certain narrative tropes transcend these generational divides. That is certainly what Tina Fey is betting on.

Bebe Wood plays Gretchen, Renee Rapp plays Regina and Avantika plays Karen in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.

Fey of course is often considered the authorial voice behind Mean Girls, the 2004 teen comedy that has served as a central text for the Millenial youth experience. In the years since its release, it has become canonized as an all time classic of the genre, and was the subject of a Broadway musical. Now, twenty years after its initial release, a new film version based on that musical hits theaters. It unapologetically attempts to take the structure of the story but update it for a new generation, incorporating aspects of social media that were in their infancy upon the original’s release. (Facebook hadn’t broken wide quite yet, and Instagram and TikTok weren’t even an idea.)

The end effect is a strange mish-mash. It aims to revitalize the musical as a format in a viral-minded age, but using a previous generations narrative as the skeleton. That is impacted by a few factors, namely that the musical it is based on is lacking in really memorable songs. It also lives in the shadows of some fairly totemic performances, and while the young cast is game and charming, the end effect ends up underwhelming. The most exciting part of the film turns out to be the directorial creativity of debut directing team of Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., who bring a fresh perspective that breathes some life into the film, but not quite enough.

For those unfamiliar, Mean Girls tells the story of Cady Heron (played by Angourie Rice this time around), an formerly homeschooled and sheltered innocent who steps into the world of American high school. She soon finds herself overwhelmed by the criss-crossing cliques and social pressures, but is taken in by outcasts Janis and Damien (Auli’i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey respectively, both a highlight) who try to show her the ropes. Before long though, she has caught the attention of Regina George (Reneé Rapp), the queen bee of the North Short High social stratosphere, capable of making or destroying whoever she wishes.

Jaquel Spivey plays Damian, Angourie Rice plays Cady and Auli’i Cravalho plays Janis in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.

Initially Janis and Damian attempt to pull Cady away, but eventually decide for her to “infiltrate” Regina’s social circle to take them down from the inside. Of course, this being high school, things get complicated quickly. Hearts are broken, allegiances shift, and the true allure of fame and popularity drags most anyone down with it if they get too close. There are a few shifts from the original film, as well as the Broadway adaptation on which this version is based, but all those adjustments keep the basic frame of the story intact. Don’t expect any radical re-writing, though the few details that are shifted serve as interesting curios for anyone who has memorized the 2004 original.

The biggest change is more in how the story is told. Director Mark Waters’ 2004 film relies heavily on its razor-sharp script by Fey, and a set of performances by a young cast who captures a cultural moment with confidence. But the basic filmmaking language was in conversation with previous generations of teen comedies: light and frothy but rarely challenging. By contrast, Jayne and Perez have a clear mission in mind: rethink of the movie musical for a viral age. The end result is very flashy, with influences that range from TikTok dance trends to OK GO music videos.

One particularly thrilling sequence follows Janis through a one-take dance number that concludes with one of the stories most memorable and shocking moments, both playful and energetic. Another sequence that fills the screen with a chorus of social media postings creates an overwhelming but undeniable current twist on movie spectacle. These tricks range from clever and exciting, to exhausting and overbearing. But as a proof of concept for a pair of directors with a distinct take on the musical, they are overall refreshingly earnest.

Tina Fey plays Ms. Norbury in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.

The end result is hyperkinetic, a mixture of a familiar story and innovative storytelling magic tricks. However, the end result mostly fails to excel past its original; in the same ways a band playing an album live can only in part replicate what made the studio version distinctive, returning to this material again and again has somewhat diluted the once-in-a-generation undeniable verve of the original. It harnesses the energy of a  high school play by folks who love the original. But that reverence eventually undermines their original ideas, creating a jovial and clever but ultimately unnecessary cover of a classic.

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