de facto film reviews 3 stars

Mean Girls has been a pinnacle of pop culture in the two decades since its release. The 2004 Tina Fey-scripted comedy starring Lindsay Lohan and Rachel McAdams was an immediate success upon release, but became a juggernaut on home video. From trying to make fetch happen, to wearing pink on Wednesdays and a celebration every October 3rd, the original film has solidified itself as a cultural touchstone for the 2000s. It even spawned a broadway musical adaptation in 2017. Now just 20 years later, this remake, which serves as a retelling of the original and an adaptation of the musical, boasts just enough fresh ideas and charm of its own to warrant its existence.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

This new Mean Girls follows all the same beats you remember from the original. Homeschooled Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) transfers to North Shore High School after living in her Kenya with her mom (Jenna Fisher). Immediately branded an outcast, Cady links up with fellow outcasts Janice (Moana’s Auli’I Cravalho) and Damian (Jaquel Spivey) who guide her through the ins and outs of their school through the different cliques that make up the social food chain. At the top of the food chain is The Plastics, the trio of popular girls led by Regina George (Renee Rapp), alongside Gretchen Weiners (Bebe Wood) and Karen Shetty (Avantika). When the Plastics welcome Cady to sit with them at lunch, Cady takes the opportunity of befriending them to instead try to infiltrate and take down the trio.

This is Mean Girls adapted for today’s generation, incorporating social media in clever ways that help differentiate itself from the 2004 original. That also means some of the more dated insults have been shaved down. Terms like “fugly slut” are now “fugly cow”; terms like bitch, slut and whore are largely dropped as well. Coach Karr (now played by Jon Hamm) is no longer sleeping with students, but does, instead, teach sex ed. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean this new film doesn’t have an edge to it.  Returning screenwriter Tina Fey gives this new update enough fresh  ideas, apart from the musical angle. Not to mention an assortment of new jokes, which hit an agreeable amount of times. Even throwaway lines earn a number of guffaws; one joke involving the name Reginald is so stupidly funny. It’s only when the film doubles down on reciting now-iconic lines and exchanges where things feel forced.

The new cast excels at making these characters their own; never stooping to imitation. Rapp, an artist who has seen her star rise significantly over the past year, is the film’s breakthrough performance. Her raspy, sensual vocals add to the menace of her portrayal of the conniving Regina. This incarnation of Regina is more immediately formidable, matching Rapp’s personality well and differentiating from McAdams’ original portrayal. Her solo numbers “Someone Gets Hurt” and “World Burn” are quite the showstoppers, not only highlighting Rapp’s unreal talents as a vocalist, but a full-fledged movie star with a distinct camera presence.

Avantika is notably riotous as the ditzy Karen, whose deer-in-the-headlights facial expression almost never ceases to be anything less than hilarious. Her song “sexy”, an ode to sexy halloween costumes, is the film’s funniest number, but also one of the more visually dazzling ones. Auli’I Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey both flourish with their expanded takes on Janice and Damien. Cravalho, already proven herself worthy in the realm of musicals as the voice of Moana, elevates the role originally inhabited by Lizzy Caplan. Janice is the character most updated with changes to her sexuality and a deeper motivation for her hatred of Regina. Spivey’s Damian, while still almost too gay to function, is given more development, while still being a reliable figure of comedy. Spivey’s unique cover of the iCarly theme song during the talent show sequence is worthy of several belly laughs. Busy Philipps is hysterical as Regina’s mom in a handful of scenes, making her own stamp on the character originally played by Amy Poehler.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The emphasis on the supporting players does ultimately detract from Angourie Rice’s fully capable take on Cady, leaving a film whose least interesting character happens to be the lead. Rice, who broke out in the great Shane Black caper The Nice Guys, has charisma of her own, but in a remake that adds new wrinkles and dimensions to many of its characters, Cady is the glaring exception. Bebe Wood is also a fitting new Gretchen Weiners, but is the actor who makes the smallest impression.

Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Smith Jr. bring a unique style that gives a palpable energy to the screen. Setting aside the musical aspect of the film, the most notable difference between this and the original film is how dynamically shot this is. While certainly not as good as the original, Jayne and Smith Jr’s film greatly benefits from a distinct formal playfulness. Making spirited use of shifting aspect ratios, lighting cues and imaginative staging, there’s a great deal of confidence in the filmmaking. There are entire musical numbers consisting of less than 5 different shots, utilizing some truly inspired camera work that takes pride in capturing large sections in sweeping oners. We’ll often see the camera rotating around the set, moving between actors and inhabiting what feels like invisible space.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Mean Girls avoids feeling like a soulless rehash thanks to its charismatic cast, fun songs and laugh-out-loud funny scripting. While it doesn’t come close to the original, there’s a ton of personality, flair and showmanship in the filmmaking. If you’re going to even bother redoing Mean Girls a mere 20 years later, this is about as good as it could’ve been.

Mean Girls is now playing in theaters.