'Mean Girls' follows catty cliques who roam high-school hallways

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The laws of the jungle have nothing on Girl World, that intricate social structure known and understood only by high-school females. And 15-year-old Cady (Lindsay Lohan), a fresh-faced teen making her debut in public school after years of home-schooling, is like a mouse in a den full of satisfied-looking lions. Which clique will devour her — the art freaks? The band geeks? The math team? Or the Plastics, a trio of miniskirted girls whose faces have the perfect sheen of a cellophane-wrapped fashion magazine, and who soon fix Cady in their mascara-rimmed gaze?

"Mean Girls," directed by Mark Waters ("Freaky Friday") and written by Tina Fey ("Saturday Night Live"), resembles Amy Heckerling's terrific 1995 "Clueless" in its zingy wit and glossy look — and, like that movie, it holds many pleasures for those well out of their teens. (Note the melancholy character named Janis Ian.) But it's got an appealing nastiness of its own. High-school hallways are scary turf, and Fey (who also plays the hip math teacher Ms. Norbury), knows it.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Mean Girls," with Lindsay Lohan, Rachel McAdams, Tim Meadows, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey. Directed by Mark Waters, from a screenplay by Fey, based on a book by Rosalind Wiseman. 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some teen partying. Several theaters.

The Plastics, for example, smoothly spell out the rules for inclusion in their elite group. You must wear pink on Wednesdays, and you can only wear your hair in a ponytail once a week. (Eyeing Cady's hair with concern, a Plastic chirps helpfully, "um, so, I guess today's your day!") You may not date ex-boyfriends of group members, and you need to understand the primal importance of being a Plastic. "All he cares about is school, and his mom, and his friends," says one, dismissing a boy's name from conversation with a roll of her eyes.

Fey's screenplay bubbles over with shrewd mini-characterizations, like the disgruntled sex-ed teacher who spews advice like, "If you touch each other, you will get chlamydia and die," or the desperate-to-be-young mother of an ultra-popular girl, bopping around in chic sweatpants and pretending to be her daughter's best friend. And while lessons are most definitely learned — Cady finds herself becoming a Mean Girl, and must shake up Girl World to escape this fate — there's a bracingly chilly tone throughout. As befits its title, "Mean Girls" never gets gooey.

Waters' cast, which includes a number of Fey's "Saturday Night Live" compatriots (Tim Meadows, in particular, is wonderfully nervous as a school principal who looks like he'd really rather be doing something else), hits all the right notes, and Lohan remains an immensely appealing teen star. Amanda Seyfried makes a hilarious movie debut as the most dimwitted Plastic, Karen, who has special powers. ("My breasts can tell when it's going to rain," she confides, wide-eyed. Then, in the interest of full disclosure, she elaborates, "Well, they can tell when it's raining.")

It's really the dialogue, sharp as a perfectly manicured fingernail, that deserves top billing here. (That, and perhaps the dirtiest bump-and-grind rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" that you'll ever see.) And within those funny lines are a few nonpreachy thoughts about self-acceptance that teenage girls would do well to heed. Tart and refreshing, "Mean Girls" is the kind of high-school movie that really feels as if it's for grown-ups — but hey, the teens can come, too.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com