Mean Girls

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Viewers of “Saturday Night Live” enjoy Tina Fey’s lethal mix of sass and intelligence each week on the “Weekend Update” segment. But Fey is also “SNL’s” head writer, which means she approves an awful lot of bad material for every episode. Luckily, we get the funny Tina Fey — the smart, clever, painfully insightful one — in “Mean Girls,” the film she wrote and has a supporting role in.

It is inspired by Rosalind Wiseman’s book “Queen Bees and Wannabes,” a nonfiction work about the social structures of teenage girls, and how adults can navigate them. Fey used the book’s principles and her own memories of high school to construct a screenplay that is as sharply perceptive as anything we’ve seen since NBC canceled “Freaks and Geeks.” It’s what would happen if you took a John Hughes film, removed the sap, heightened the laughs, and pitched everything just a wee bit darker.

Lindsay Lohan, of “Freaky Friday” and the unfortunate “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen” (of which “Mean Girls” is the polar opposite, intelligence-wise), plays Cady Heron, a 16-year-old daughter of research zoologists who is entering the public school system for the first time, having been tutored heretofore by her parents while living in Africa. As a newcomer not just to North Shore High School but to high school in general, she has a clean slate and soon realizes, with the aid of misfit Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and too-gay-for-words Damian (Daniel Franzese), that she must choose her social circles wisely.

She measures up favorably in the eyes of Regina George (Rachel McAdams), leader of the Plastics, a trio of girls who are the prettiest, richest females in the junior class. Regina and her associates, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) and Karen (Amanda Seyfried), manipulate the entire class, and keep a scrapbook of sorts in which they paste girls’ pictures and write gossip about them. They are feared, loved, venerated and hated by all of their female classmates. (“One time Regina punched me in the face,” says one girl in a to-the-camera testimonial. “It was awesome.”)

Provided she follows the rules — wear pink on Friday, don’t join the math club, etc. — Cady is allowed to socialize with them. This suits her: She, Janis and Damian want to infiltrate their ranks, learn their secrets, and destroy them. It begins well enough, as they employ sabotage and subterfuge to get the Plastics fighting amongst themselves, and to get Regina in a fix with her current boy-toy, the dreamy Aaron Samuels (Jonathan Bennett). Unfortunately, in the process of acting, thinking and talking like a Plastic, Cady slowly becomes one. She becomes a Mean Girl.

The best laughs are in the first half of the film, as the habits of teenagers are trenchantly observed and dissected by Janis and Damian. Cady often compares her classmates to wild animals — they’re what she knows best, after all, given her upbringing — and finds more similarities than differences. The faculty, including Fey as math teacher Ms. Norbury and Tim Meadows as Principal Duvall, exhibit a weary resignation to the hormonal hell they work in, and between them deliver some of the best laugh-out-loud commentary in the film (which was directed by “Freaky Friday’s” Mark S. Waters).

Lohan never quite convinces me as a Mean Girl, but she has a winning presence in the film and continues to show potential as a strong leading lady. The Plastics are all well-played by the young actresses, and current “SNL” highlight Amy Poehler has a hysterical turn as Regina’s too-hip mother.

I’m impressed not just with the film’s comedy, which is as funny as anything I’ve seen this year, but with its underlying realism. Many of the specific events, while exaggerated for comic effect, exemplify principles that ring true. I mentioned the girl who says Regina punched her, and it was awesome: No one would say those words, per se, but the idea behind them — that Regina is vicious and evil, yet many girls are thrilled just to have contact with her — is painfully true. Watch also as Cady continues to vie for approval from Regina, whom she openly despises. If it doesn’t remind you of high school, you must not have gone to high school.

A- (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, moderate profanity, some mild sexuality, a bit of violence.)