Going on pre-release advertising alone, Paramount Pictures seemed determined not to let audiences know MEAN GIRLS (2024) was a musical. The advertising featured no songs and the tagline proclaimed, “This isn’t your mother’s MEAN GIRLS” – a nod to its 20-year-old, yet still endlessly referenced, source material. Like HAIRSPRAY (2007), this film began life on screen before spawning a musical adaptation in 2017; a West End premiere is scheduled for later this year.
When an original work is so beloved and iconically quotable, the primary question centres on the justification of this adaptation. Musicals adapted from other material often work better on stage, buoying themselves on the infectious energy and nostalgia in the room. MEAN GIRLS (2024) struggles with the inevitable comparison and loses some of its bite in re-translation, but it is a bouncy, joyous, and thoroughly competent piece of entertainment.
Unlike the recent cinema release of Heathers: The Musical (another 2010s musical made from a cult classic high school film) as a multi-camera proshoot filmed live on stage and edited into a film, MEAN GIRLS is a film through and through. Directors Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr. take advantage of the medium to frame songs ‘breaking the fourth wall’ through high school students live streaming their thoughts and reactions (here, the screen becomes a vertical, recognisable yet logo-less Instagram Live or TikTok feed). At the same time, this move updates this “cautionary tale” (in the words of the opening song) to the 2020s. Not your mother’s MEAN GIRLS, indeed.
“While the social media moments are startlingly well handled (it is hard to think of another film that weaves modern teen communications – difficult to get right in tone and format – into the text so seamlessly), other updates are odder.”
While the social media moments are startlingly well handled (it is hard to think of another film that weaves modern teen communications – difficult to get right in tone and format – into the text so seamlessly), other updates are odder. For instance, most of the 2004 film’s fat jokes are gone (Gen Z have new and creative ways of tormenting each other), but the gag about gaslighting Regina with high-calorie bars awkwardly remains. A more thorough translation of the film’s themes to the 2020s could have set this MEAN GIRLS up as its predecessor’s equal.
The music by Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin are not the most memorable, especially compared to Lawrence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy’s original compositions for Heathers: The Musical – those unfamiliar with the stage soundtrack may struggle to hum all but single-line refrains upon leaving the cinema, and the distribution of songs is weighted towards the front half.
Angourie Rice’s Cady Heron is a winning protagonist, less a good-hearted innocent than a young woman who never had the chance to be tested by the dark side – and almost succumbs. Renee Rapp, Broadway’s second Regina George, reprises the role here. Standing almost a head taller than many of her scene mates, her Regina becomes a different shade of mean than Rachel McAdams’ unforgettable turn, leaving her own mark on the queen bee. While Bebe Woods’ Gretchen Wiener is wasted (a victim of tonal shifts that never settle), Avantika Vandanapu’s Karen Shetty – who seems never to blink – steals the show with her Halloween song/dance/rave. In a less surprising yet very overdue turn, Auliʻi Cravalho, as Janice, finally finds a post-MOANA role worthy of her charisma and singing credentials.
“The line delivery is where MEAN GIRLS pulls ahead. There is a temptation to overplay the best quotes, either by imitating the original or overplaying them for a knowing audience reaction. To the immense credit of Jayne and Perez Jr., this temptation is entirely avoided.”
Bringing over Tina Fey and Tim Meadows from the 2004 film may be a safe play, but the familiarity feels like a considered homage rather than laziness (and leads to a terrific half-singing gag). Unfortunately, Jon Hamm is strangely miscast and underused as a de-fanged Coach Carr. Busy Phillips may be the film’s stealth MVP as Mrs George, contorting her body and face into the most comically off-putting “cool mom” antics.
The line delivery is where MEAN GIRLS pulls ahead. There is a temptation to overplay the best quotes, either by imitating the original or overplaying them for a knowing audience reaction. To the immense credit of Jayne and Perez Jr., this temptation is entirely avoided. Lines about big hair and going shopping are delivered as if newly written – no mean feat in this era of nostalgia.
Scepticism can be left at the door; with its spark, originality, and excellent performances, MEAN GIRLS (2024) is heartily enjoyable on its own merits.