Film Review: Mean Girls; 2024 musical update honours the original as much as it forges its own fetch personality

Like many a millennial, the original Mean Girls from 2004 holds a special place in the depths of my queer, quote-filled heart.  It’s why there was sense of trepidation in coming into the new iteration of Tina Fey and Mark Waters’ high-school comedy.  Now, I was actually fully aware that this particular version was a musical – it’s the filmic version of the Broadway musical of the original film – and if it wasn’t for a little pandemic in 2020 I was to be overly familiar with said musical, having purchased front row seats to the show in New York.  We all know how that year panned out, so, not only do I get to finally see a variation of the stage musical, I get to witness a new generational take on a film that’s still so ingrained in pop culture that it’s almost starting on the backfoot before butts have even been placed in seats.

Now, Mean Girls in its 2024 format is exactly the same story as before.  Fey has returned to both write the film and provide snappy support as math teacher Ms. Norbury, and there are many recycled jokes and quotes throughout, but, it’s not really a reflection of anything lazy on Fey’s part, more that she’s bringing the stage show language to the screen – which, in itself, was the dialogue from the 2004 film.  It’s an easy criticism to hurl at this film, but Fey’s words prove just as humorous on rewatches, so in the hands and out of the mouths of this 2024 cast the humour still lands, however familiar some audiences may find it; let’s not forget, there’s a whole generation of fresh meat out there that don’t have Lindsay Lohan and co. to relate to.

On the mention of Lohan, her homeschooled-turned-deer-in-headlights student, Cady Heron, is now embodied by Australian actress Angourie Rice.  And, in the expected beats, she comes to a brand new high-school, makes fast friends with the self-imposed outcasts, Janis (Auli’i Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey), and quickly learns the school hierarchy, where “The Plastics” are atop the student food chain.  In charge of said Plastics is Queen Bee (and self-proclaimed “massive deal”), Regina George (Reneé Rapp, who has familiarity with the role, having performed it on Broadway), with the chatty, co-dependent Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood) and the doe-eyed ditz Karen Shetty (Avantika) as her loyal minions.  Singling Cady out as the school’s newest, untouched recruit, Regina invites her to join the trio for their lunch ritual, leading Janis and Damian – both with their reasons to despise all that Regina stands for – to set up Cady to take the school’s apex predator down.  In expected fashion – both because it’s a genre staple and telegraphed from the original film – Cady succeeds, but ends up becoming a Plastic herself, leading to a downward spiral that encapsulates the entire school body.

Whatever comfortableness experienced through the story and certain jokes, where this Mean Girls thrives is through its new casting, updated inclusivity pertaining to character sexuality, and, of course, the musical numbers, many of which are excitingly framed and filmed, with the music video-aesthetic that some footage threatened thankfully nowhere to be seen; a duo of Regina numbers (“Someone Gets Hurt” and “World Burn”) and the ensemble-led “Revenge Party” serving as the film’s highlights.  On the mention of Regina, Rapp’s take on the character doesn’t step on Rachel McAdams’ iconic embodiment, but beautifully exists alongside her.  She seems less of a caricature than how Fey wrote her originally, and certain additions and alterations paint her as less of a villain in the long-run; there’s quite a tender moment between Cady and Regina in the finale of the film, when the latter has suffered a near-death accident (2004 fans will know what I’m talking about), that bridges the type of gap we almost wish we got between Lohan and McAdams in 2004.  Plus, it’s capped off with stellar comedic delivery from Rapp regarding how she’d be referred to if she was a man that may just go down as one of the year’s best jokes.

With Fey’s writing hand once again in charge – directing duties here are undergone by the duo of Samantha Payne and Arturo Perez Jr. – it assists in Mean Girls never completely folding into itself in the hope of catering to Gen Z.  Sure, it relies on updated social media trends and it includes unnecessary cameos from the likes of Megan Thee Stallion (which feels more designed to remind us of her collaboration with Rapp on the soundtrack, “Not My Fault”) and “digital creator” Chris Olsen , but of-the-now references are practically a staple in the teen film genre, and the biggest question relating to the film – that it can prove its own worth of existence next to the weight of a pop culture behemoth – is quite easily answered with a welcome enthusiasm.

This Mean Girls won’t be for everyone.  Some may have an issue in separating it from its predecessor, others may not warm to its musical temperament, but as a devoted lover of the original I found this 2024 update alarmingly fresh and stupendously funny.  Yes, it tread similar ground, but it broke tradition enough to earn its own stripes as a smart, respectful, musical comedy.  Now that is so fetch!

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mean Girls is now screening in Australian theatres.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.