StarsStarsStarsStarsStars

Mean Girls review: new adaptation wobbles under weight of expectations

Get in, loser: we're reviewing Mean Girls (2024).

The burning question surrounding Tina Fey’s reimagining of her classic 2004 teen flick Mean Girls (aside from ‘is it fetch?’) was whether or not it would survive a 20-year culture update.

Yes, it really has been that long. And you might be surprised to learn that the majority of today’s teenagers refer to 2004’s Mean Girls as ‘an old movie’. I mean, the teens in that film are communicating via landline phone! WTF?

By way of distinguishing itself right out of the gate, 2024’s Mean Girls opens with a TikTok – or more specifically, a vertical video – of best friends Damian and Janis jamming in the garage, singing a rockin’ opening number that sets the scene. In one song, we are welcomed into the world of American high school, and introduced to the main characters: Cady Heron, an exchange student from Kenya, and Regina George, the leader of The Plastics – an elite group of popular girls. Teens will immediately resonate with the familiar format of TikTok trends and to-camera storytelling, but older generations might struggle.

If you didn’t know going in, you’d have worked out by this point that 2024’s Mean Girls is indeed a musical. I mean, it was already a musical, on stage that is – and it had a pretty successful run on Broadway as a straightforward adaptation of the film with singing and dancing added.

All of this means that the film really has its work cut out for it balancing the nostalgia for the 2004 film, plus adapting a stage musical to screen, and giving it enough of a makeover so that it feels as modern as Euphoria. I don’t envy Tina Fey in this endeavour.

Read: Anyone But You review: a rom-com with good laughs

The TikTok references don’t stop at the opening. The film is positively bursting at the seems with TikTok videos – including dancing, ‘live reactions’, POV vids, and oh-so-many filters. It does feel a little like the creators (we must look equally at directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr.) picked one thing that teens like these days and went all in. There’s also a line about vaping, which will either make you chuckle or cringe.

The Burn Book remains as the McGuffin of the film, despite being a remnant of a bygone era. All too aware of this, the script has been massaged to explain that the Plastics hand-made the catty scrapbook when their parents ‘took their phones away’. The line thuds like a trust-fall gone wrong: if the central plot device has to be explained in such a way, why not just change it to a social-media based Burn Book? Or, to go one more jaded step further, why remake this story at all?

Renee Rapp plays Regina George in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.

Read: Paper Dolls, Paramount+ review: a musical roller-coaster ride

There are some more odd choices with regards to updating the material to avoid offending people (something the original was absolutely not concerned with), like including lines about slut shaming but removing the ‘fugly slut’ insult from the Burn Book, and characters going out of their way to ensure we know they are LGBTQIA+ allies (it’s not Janis being a lesbian that scares the other teens now, it’s her pyromaniac tendencies).

Is it cynical of me to say that teens themselves are not actually that considerate, and will probably find more to relate to in the rude, in-your-face dialogue of the 2004 version? Maybe. But I reckon all that’s truly changed in the real world is the slang that’s used to convey much of the same messages as the early 2000s – homophobia, fatphobia, slut shaming and more still run rampant in the chaotic world of high school.

Don’t misconstrue these thoughts. I’m not claiming that Mean Girls has ‘gone woke’ or something equally idiotic. Rather, I think this is another case of modern mainstream storytelling sanitising its content to garner mass appeal. Less risque jokes means better sales worldwide. Again, it’s a cynical view, but something I couldn’t help noticing as the film repeated all of the same jokes as the original, but in a watered-down way.

Jaquel Spivey plays Damian, Angourie Rice plays Cady Heron and Auli’i Cravalho plays Janis in Mean Girls from Paramount Pictures. Photo: Jojo Whilden/Paramount © 2023 Paramount Pictures.

It must be said that there are actually some updates to Mean Girls that work wonderfully. The musical set pieces are a visual treat, and all the magic of a stage show (glittery props, costume changes, strobing lights) translate well to this hyper-pop screen version.

Adjusting the lead roles to include more POC– namely, Jaquel Spivvy as Damian, Auli’i Cravalho as Janis, and Avantika as Karen – means that it’s a more accurate representation of what you’d see in a high school. The move feels genuine, not pandering, and the actors tasked with reinventing these characters are some of the biggest highlights of the flick.

Avantika damn near steals the show with her wide-eyed, logically-challenged Karen Shetty, who proclaims at a Halloween party that she will one day ‘be a sexy doctor’ and cure ‘sex cancer’. When Gretchen Wieners (Bebe Wood) explains that sex cancer doesn’t exist, Karen simply gazes off to the middle distance and proclaims softly: ‘I did it.’

Australian actor Angourie Rice is extremely endearing as Cady, but lacks some of the edge and comedic sensibilities that Lindsay Lohan brought oh-so-naturally in the original. Her solo song numbers are also a little bit lacklustre, mainly because her quiet, indie-folk voice is easily overpowered by the rest of the cast. It suits the character’s status, but becomes frustrating when words are lost in the mix.

Read: Strife, Binge review: a piss-taking look at Australian ‘feminist’ website

Renee Rapp as Regina George – plucked directly from Broadway – is a true powerhouse, nailing both George’s beauty and power as well as her vulnerability. Her performance, drawing inspiration from big cats and social media influencers alike, is distinct enough from Rachel McAdams’ iconic portrayal that you’d almost think she was born to play the role. And her songs are some of the best villain songs put to screen in years, with Rapp commanding audience attention until the last second.

Frustratingly, a lot of Regina George’s lyrics also get lost, especially when she has her back to the camera and the music is swelling. It’s disappointing when a dodgy sound mix disservices the cast.

When I think about the moments where I laughed the hardest during Mean Girls, they were all replicated moments from the 2004 film (aside from one tiny, self referential Tina Fey moment which had me choking on my popcorn). It was like reminiscing with friends about how great, how formative and how special that original movie was to us when we were teens. I don’t know if this version will become to the teens of today what it was to us then. But I do know that it really made me want to watch the original again.

Sure, there’s something nice and nostalgic about a modern film having callbacks to a classic – but if they got it right the first time, why try again?

Mean Girls is in cinemas now.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports