The 2011 Back-To-School episodes of the When Can I Watch column move from a Wimpy Kid to some Mean Girls. Given the fact that both films paint school as a terrifying prison filled with dismissive monsters who are marginally less judgmental than the panelists on “America’s Next Top Model,” maybe I should think about doing an uplifting educational film in the column some time soon. Does anyone have a copy of Stand and Deliver they can lend me?  


 


Mark Waters’ darkish high school satire, adapted by Tina Fey from Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bees and Wannabes, was a reader suggestion – and a great one, at that. (By the way, keep the suggestions coming either in the comments section below or via Twitter at @Sean_OConnell.) 


 

The film is a lot closer to Heathers in tone than I remembered. For whatever reason, I related it more to Can’t Hardly Wait or even American Pie, but Fey’s script boasts a remarkable “ear” for sarcastically mean-spirited teen dialogue, which gives Mean Girls its hardened spine. 


 


Yet the film’s worth discussing in the column for so many reasons, starting with its accurately pessimistic depiction of a suburban high school’s social setting — the analogy to an African watering hole is spot on. Plus, it’s Lindsay Lohan’s last decent role (and she’s excellent as innocent Cady, reminding us that the actress had legitimate talent before she chose to flush her career down that toilet.)


 


So, let’s lunch with the “Plastics,” write about our enemies in the Burn Book, stop trying to make “Fetch” happen, and figure out when you can watch Mean Girls with your kids.


 


  


Red Flags: “She’s fabulous, but she’s evil.”


 


Wiseman’s book, Queen Bees, is a self-help, non-fiction study of social cliques that’s meant to educate parents who are guiding their daughters through the teenage years. And like any good satirist, Fey wisely saw the book as a comedic goldmine. But when she chose to adapt it into the mainstream comedy Mean Girls, she consciously decided to appeal to adults with borderline racy humor that would recall the difficult high school years without actually speaking to high schoolers. 


 


Which makes it difficult to watch with your kids today. 


 


So much of the humor in Mean Girls, while on-the-nose hilarious, shoots over the heads of kids who could have been able to relate to Lohan’s character, Cady — a sweetly naïve home-schooler forced to brave the wilds of public school after her parents (Ana Gasteyer, Neil Flynn) transfer for their jobs. 


 


In Fey’s “Girl World,” which likely resembles the real world, characters are blatantly, brutally, classified by their superficial characteristics, from the nerds to the gays to the jocks to the “Plastics.” That’s not to say this doesn’t happen, but Mean Girls claws and scratches and bites and mocks where others gently deride for the benefit of a spoof. 


 


Punch lines whip by like gazelle fleeing hungry lions on the Serengeti. But savvy kids will pick up on Fey’s references to planned parenthood, teachers sleeping with students, teen suicide, inappropriate parents (Amy Poehler) offering alcohol to minors, girls casually losing their virginity, effeminate guys being “nearly too gay to function,” and on and on. That’s not to say these jokes aren’t funny. Several are brilliantly perceptive (especially the one about how awkward it is to see your teacher out in public). But if words hurt, then Mean Girls is the cinematic equivalent of Tom Hardy plowing through the competition at Sparta.


 


Perhaps Mean Girls stings because Lohan’s so effective as innocent Cady. We almost want to reach through the screen and protect her as if she were our own child. And since the lessons of the film require Cady to stoop to the level of Regina George (Rachel McAdams, also fantastic) and her bubble-headed minions, Mean Girls lives up to it’s mean hype. 


 

If your kids are looking for something softer, try Disney Channel’s Lemonade Mouth. If, for whatever reason, they’re looking for something edgier but no less honest, rent The Breakfast Club.


 


 


Green Lights: “Oh my God – Danny DeVito! I love your work!”


 


If your kids are old enough, they’ll find the exaggerated sarcasm of Mean Girls to be pretty damn hilarious. Because a large part of Fey never left high school, and because she earned her stripes in the high-school-hierarchy of the Saturday Night Live writers’ room, her humor nails the insecurities of the teenage years. Watching the film with your own children, you’ll be able to point out kids either you went to school with or students they’re currently going to school with. I wonder who, in the movie, your kids most closely resemble? 


 


There aren’t plenty of discussion points waiting for parents who watch Mean Girls with their kids, most revolving around staying true to who you are and never changing so people will like you. More than likely, a Mean Girls screening’s going to inspire you to relive a few tough high school memories with your son or daughter so they, too, can hear how difficult that time period can be for everyone.


 


As soon as we finished watching it, my wife started telling me about the clique that ran her all-girls high school. Oddly enough, all of the girls shared the same name, which I don’t imagine happens very often. Our boys are too young to have had to deal with the level of peer pressure Cady faces at her new school (thank Christ). But I know Michele’s going to have those stories ready when they come home complaining about the mean kids who broke their spirit between second and third period one day. 


 


When Mean Girls came out in 2004, my first child was a newborn baby, so to me, it was just a funnier-than-average comedy from the SNL factory. Watching it recently, I felt the pain of Cady’s parents, played in passing by Gasteyer and Flynn. Mainly, I wanted them to get more involved, to be better role models, to actively interfere with Cady’s trajectory and somehow protect her from the bitchiness, the cattiness that waited for her every day in school. (Notice how Lizzy Caplan’s wickedly jaded Janis refuses to pronounce Lohan’s name as “Katey,” but always goes with “Caddie” … or “Catty.” Nice touch, Ms. Fey.)


 


Then again, we can’t protect them every day, can we? Some day, we’re just going to have to let them leave the nest, choose the right friends, pursue the right guy, stand up for the right people … and not get hit by a school bus.  


 


 


Appropriate Age


 


Teenagers. And, like, late teens. Fifteen and up, probably. Freshmen in high school will laugh hardest at Mean Girls, and parents will be surprised at how many jokes their own kids get. But Fey’s script, Waters’s direction, and McAdams’s vicious portrayal of the brutal Queen Bee mean Mean Girls is meant for older kids who, hopefully, realize that high school’s one big joke we’re all asked to tolerate until the real fun (college) begins.


 


Hey, maybe it’s time to do Animal House in the column?


 

Until then, if you’d like to read previous entries in the “When Can I Watch That With My Kids?” series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Lucas, The Monster Squad and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.


 

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