‘Mean Girls’: Familiar but still pretty fetch

The cast in the new Mean Girls movie. Picture: Supplied

The cast in the new Mean Girls movie. Picture: Supplied

Published Jan 18, 2024


By Michael O'Sullivan

It’s been a long, strange trip for the smart, real-world ideas behind Rosalind Wiseman’s “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, the 2002 parenting book about how to deal with difficult teenage daughters that is best known as the inspiration for the hit 2004 movie “Mean Girls”.

Hidden inside a comedy of cultural anthropology that was silly and sardonic, courtesy of screenwriter Tina Fey, they’ve survived, more or less intact, through a lacklustre 2011 sequel that Fey had nothing to do with and that nobody remembers: “Mean Girls 2”, on the ABC Family channel.

In 2017, they found their way to a stage musical, which became a hit the following year on Broadway, spawning a popular national tour after the interruption of the Covid-19 pandemic.

And they are still the best thing about the newly rebooted “Mean Girls”, a hybrid of the 20-year-old film and the more recent live show that plays like those two things had a baby that grew up to become a lot like one parent and only a little like the other.

The thing it’s most like is, of course, the first movie, which is precisely what’s right and what’s wrong with this one.

Tina Fey plays Ms Norbury in Mean Girls. Picture: Jojo Whilden/ Paramount Pictures

This being cinema, the new “Mean Girls” wisely doesn’t try to simply adapt for the screen something that worked onstage and wouldn’t translate to film.

Yes, it’s got songs (by Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin), but they feel abridged and ever so slightly diminished here: delivered more in the context of the original narrative of viral shaming, which has been tweaked for our TikTok times.

In some moments, watching “Mean Girls”(which features Fey and Tim Meadows in their original roles) is like watching a re-enactment of the first film with mostly new – yet some returning – actors, but with musical numbers grafted onto it.

It’s said to be a “Mean Girls” for a new generation: not quite the old movie, and not exactly the Broadway show, either, but something between the two.

For fans of the 2004 film, which for many is a perfect, inviolable, almost sacrosanct thing, this means that this will be, every once in a while, redundant.

All the callbacks and catchphrases in this story of cliques, belonging and backstabbing, including “You go, Glen Coco” and Kevin the mathlete’s R-rated rap at the winter talent show, are not what you’d call fresh.

That said, this version is sharp, well-acted and funny, and there are a few surprises for “Mean Girls” cultists, which will not be spoilt here. Angourie Rice does a great job as the good-girl heroine, Cady, arriving at a typical large American high school as a home-schooled transfer pupil after a childhood in Kenya with her nerdy, academic researcher mom (Jenna Fischer).

And Renée Rapp is delicious as the queen bee Regina, whose dominion over her entourage (Avantika as the dimwitted Karen and Bebe Wood as Gretchen Wieners) is absolute – and under whose sway Cady soon falls.

The art nerds, Janis and Damian (Auli’i Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey), who narrated the musical from the perspective of adolescent outcasts, are fabulous, if somewhat less foregrounded, here.

There’s lots of fun to be had, in a show that rhymes nonplussed with calcu-lust.

And yet, like its predecessors, this “Mean Girls” has bite. Early on, we listen to the tune “A Cautionary Tale”, whose lyrics remind us that, amid all the fun and games, there’s potential to be hurt.

Don’t worry, as we’re reminded: No one dies. (Well, if you remember your “Mean Girls” history, someone actually does, but only for 15 seconds.) This “Mean Girls” may be a sugar-coated object lesson about unhealthy, ingrained behaviours, but it’s no downer.

Is it a lesson we’ve heard before? Yes, twice now, in 2004 and 2018. If you’re 17, it’s still worth hearing. Maybe if you’re 47, too.

However familiar it may be for the faithful, this “Mean Girls” is still pretty, for lack of a better word, fetch.

∎ “Mean Girls” is showing at cinemas nationwide.