Mean Girls was made right between the time when Lohan was too young for audiences to really tell whether she was a good actress and when she went off the rails. It’s a comedy, not a drama, but it still required someone in the lead role who had screen presence and who could convincingly portray the main character’s journey. Lohan fulfills both criteria at least as well as Emma Stone (I get the comparison now!). One wonders what her career would look like today, ten years later, if she’d stayed (moderately) clean.
Lohan plays Cady, the teenage daughter of American zoologists who’ve just returned from a decade-long stay in Africa. The movie opens on Cady’s first-ever day in a regular high school and has a dangerous amount of fun with her African socialisation. Drums, for instance, appear in the film’s score with great frequency, as do Cady’s musings on the similarities between African wildlife and the jungle of teenage relationships. That it always stops just short of being sort of racist is a credit to Tina Fey’s clever screenplay, which has enough of an edge to be funny without being overly mean (it helps that she gave the most obviously offensive line of dialogue to her own character and played it appropriately).
Cady is nice and comparatively well-adjusted and finds friends in a pair of social outcasts. But because she is also pretty, she gets invited into the most popular clique on campus. She joins them first as a favour, but increasingly gets to enjoy the attention she now receives from others. When the clique’s “queen” opposes Cady’s pursuit of a crush, she tries to destroy the group from within, slowly turning into a Mean Girl herself in the process.
The outcome of that storyline is pretty predictable, but there are many laughs to be found along the way. That’s not the only reason I think the film resonated with audiences when it was released and has (apparently) developed into a modern classic. The characters are surprisingly well-drawn, even minor ones often going beyond simple caricatures and getting a somewhat more nuanced characterisation than typical for this kind of film. Not all the Mean Girls are all that mean (or nasty for no reason).
It also doesn’t hurt that the cast includes a multitude of talented ladies other than Lohan who have since become much more famous: obviously Rachel McAdams (Sherlock Holmes, Midnight in Paris), Amanda Seyfried (Big Love, Mamma Mia) and Lizzy Caplan (Party Down, Masters of Sex), but Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) have also gotten a boost in recognition since their Saturday Night Live days via their respective TV comedies.
It should be noted that the one group of characters that is definitely marginalised in the film is boys. Other than a gay friend of Cady’s (who doesn’t seem to “count” as a boy, even sneaking into an all-girls assembly without anyone being bothered by it) and a token love interest, bearers of Y chromosomes have little if any bearing on the plot. But that’s not necessarily a negative, since it makes the movie focus all the more on the social behaviours of high school girls, which is clearly the point of Fey’s script.