by Ed Symkus

What kind of alignment are the planets in when two teen-oriented films, each of which looks on the surface like a real stinker and which were released just weeks apart, are actually darn good? Following hot on the trail of the edgy The Girl Next Door, and perhaps borrowing a tad from others like itself -- both Heathers and Clueless quickly come to mind -- Mean Girls ends up standing quite well on its own. It's for and about teen girls, which means it's also for teen boys who like to look at teen girls, but because it's slyly written and has adult roles that aren't of the usual idiotic American Pie ilk, it could easily become a crossover film into the over-30 market.

Taking a page from a younger kid-oriented film, The Wild Thornberrys Movie, 16-year-old Cady (an ever-maturing Lindsay Lohan) has been home-schooled by her zoologist parents in Africa. But now they're all back home -- I think in New Jersey -- and it's Cady's first day as a junior in high school. And it's not an easy first day, because she just doesn't know what both teachers and students refer to as "the rules." In other words, it's very clear that she's an outsider..

The only people who will talk to her are two other students who have gone out of their way to remain outsiders -- Damian (Daniel Franzese) and Jan (Lizzy Caplan). He's proudly gay, and she's most likely a lesbian. Seeing that her actual name is Janis Ian pretty much clinches it.

And then there are "the Plastics," a trio of supposedly the most popular girls in school, all of whom are wrapped up in their own clique-iness. There's follower Gretchen (Lacey Chabert), idiot Karen (Amanda Seyfried) and self-proclaimed leader -- who most students refer to as the evil blonde goddess -- Regina (Rachel McAdams).

For no reason that's made clear, the Plastics, under the direction of Regina, take an interest in this new girl in town, who is a good student, but has no idea of how to be an American high schooler. She doesn't even know that there are any rules. Cady's two pals think it would be a great idea for her to get in with the group, just so they can all have a good laugh at how plastic they really are.

A variety of side stories all lead up to everything going wrong for most of the main characters at different times. When Cady takes a liking to popular boy Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), then finds out she's an ex-boyfriend of Regina's, she doesn't heed the advice of another girl to stay away. And after Aaron asks Cady out, Regina goes out of her way to take him back. So begins a plot of revenge, or at least an idea to cause turmoil within the Plastics' camp.

Though all of this could have become a silly exploration of teens out of control, writer and Saturday Night Live veteran Tina Fey -- who also plays math teacher Ms. Norbury -- injects it with more of a darkness than would be expected in a film like this. Things do go wrong for the Plastics. But things also go wrong for Cady, who, without realizing it, starts getting pulled in to their bandwagon, starts becoming more like one of them. Before long, tables are turned all over the place: Friends become enemies, enemies fight with each other. And in this circle, one's enemy can be vicious.

But the film remains an odd comedy. There are plenty of good sight gags, usually brief cutaways to some out-of-place action. And it's sprinkled with imaginative and funny fantasy sequences where Cady pictures life in school as it would be if she were still living in Africa, where wild beasts are always ready to attack some unsuspecting prey.

At one point the script gets so hip, it includes a mention of the extremely strange "Ramayana Monkey Chant," a piece of Balinese music that defies description. But it's mistakenly referred to as Ramayan, not Ramayana. (Where were the script's fact-checkers?)

On the positive side, Lohan is terrific in the part, much more relaxed in front of the camera than she was in last year's Freaky Friday, in which she was also good. And Rachel McAdams plays the horrid Regina with such exuberance, she's surely an actress to watch for (she's stunning in the upcoming The Notebook).

But it's two background characters who get to steal as many scenes as they're in: another SNL vet, Tim Meadows, as the overwhelmed principal Mr. Meadows, and the hilarious Rajiv Surendra, as rapper-math whiz Kevin.

Where Clueless was much too structured in trying to be a slick update of Emma, and Heathers tried too hard to be outrageous, Mean Girls is more of a romp with a message. It gets not only a passing grade, it also deserves some extra credit.

Publication date: 04/29/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
  • or