God bless high-school cliques. If they didn't exist, Hollywood would have to invent them. Since at least the early 1980s, cliques have been a staple of teen fare, with some of these flicks--Clueless, Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High--achieving semi-classic rank.
Mean Girls is certainly no film for the ages, but it does have its moments. It's the story of Cady Heron (the adorable and talented Lindsay Lohan), home-schooled in Africa by her zoologist parents, who shows up for her first day of "real" high school in the U.S. only to discover an institution defined by class consciousness and ruled by The Plastics, three rich, beautiful and bitchy girls who are hated and envied by everyone.
Initially taking up with two outcasts, Goth-like Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) and "almost too gay to function" Damian (Daniel Franzese), Cady is soon admitted into The Plastics' inner circle, first as sport, then for real. Eventually Cady becomes as queen-bee and nasty as her bodacious friends, but a series of events conspire to bring her down. At the end of the film, she's become a force for good in the school, which has now become the human equivalent of Edward Hicks' famous 19th-century painting The Peaceable Kingdom.
So much for the uplifting, and totally clichd, aspects of the film. On the plus side, Mean Girls contains some fine and funny performances by its young leads, and the Tina Fey screenplay is extremely perceptive about the ways in which high-schoolers pair off into little universes of their own. One of the best scenes in the picture is a pan of the school cafeteria, with Cady's voiceover describing what clique--Asian nerds, Asian hotties, drug burnouts, jocks--is sitting at what table. There's also a very clever bit with Cady at the local mall watching kids hanging out around the indoor fountain and comparing it to animal waterhole behavior she's observed in Africa.
But Fey's background as a "Saturday Night Live" regular and head writer--she's the faux newscaster--is also Mean Girls' undoing. The film is filled with smart one-liners, but structurally it's a mess: choppy, not funny for long stretches of time, and not averse to using hoary teen-film clichs.
So, OK, Fey didn't have the Jane Austen template to work with, which is a major reason why Clueless is so great. But she doesn't break any new ground, either. Mean Girls certainly isn't a bad film--it's too sweet and unpretentious for that--but it's not a particularly good one, either. However, if you've got a 14-year-old girl in your family, take her: She'll totally relate to its depiction of atomized teen lives.