To many who have weathered the perils of adolescence during and since the early 1980s, the filmography of director John Hughes has served almost as a guide to coping with the awkwardness and insecurity of this confusing time. Films like Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, and of course, The Breakfast Club have not only managed to portray teenage youth in a way that seems realistic, but it also has helped solidify the conventions of that period, and in many ways it seems as if teens are somehow attempting to model themselves after these films.
On a personal level, I can certainly state that I always view this period in my life through a John Hughes lens; I truly did feel that most adults, like most adults in those films, didn't "get it", nor did I believe they made true attempts to do so. I repeatedly observed that the stereotypes embodied in the detention session in The Breakfast Club are still alive and well in today's schools; no matter what school you populate, you can still find the "brain", the "athlete", the "basket case", the "princess", and "the criminal", still showering contempt on one another without realizing how much they truly are alike. And like most of the teenage denizens of John Hughes' fictional Shermer, Illinois, I too felt as if the challenges and adventures I was embarking on were challenges of epic proportions.
For many years, I have felt that there has not been a strong heir apparent to the Hughes throne that was vacated at the close of the '80s. Sure, films like American Pie and Can't Hardly Wait were great efforts, and certainly his influence is apparent in these films, but it always felt they were missing some vital piece of that magical formula. Much to my surprise, a return back to the style of teen film that I loved so much came from an unlikely source — a Saturday Night Live alumna and a troubled paparazzi-magnet teen.
The Tina Fey-scripted teen comedy Mean Girls (which is actually adapted from the non-fiction book Queen Bees and Wannabes) may in fact be the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the glory of those aforementioned teen classics. The film relates the story of the beautiful yet awkward Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan, surprisingly strong in this role), a 15-year-old girl who has just moved from the wilds of Africa and is entering into public high school for the first time. In no time at all, she comes into contact with a trio known as The Plastics, gorgeous yet self-absorbed fashionistas led by the cunning Regina George (Rachel McAdams). Cady becomes the main figure in a scheme to bring the Plastics down by infiltrating their clique; however, Cady soon finds that the longer she walks their walk and talks their talk, the more she seems to truly become one of the Plastics.
For those who are ardent fans of Hughes' films, it is not difficult to recognize the influence of the acclaimed director in this seriously clever film. Head Plastic Regina seems to have taken the most negative traits of Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club and James Spader in Pretty in Pink and congealed them into one dastardly individual. The trials and tribulations of young Cady don't seem too far removed from the harrowing sixteenth birthday of Samantha Baker. Amy Poehler's hysterical cameo as "the cool mom" carries on the fabled Hughes perception of adults: they think they understand their youth and yet they are truly clueless. And in the end, for richer or for poorer, whether popular or outcast, our peers in the wild jungle that is high school are more alike than they had first suspected.
At the same time, credit should be given to the brilliance of Tina Fey, for she has also challenged a number of the classic Hughes trademarks. While there are certainly a host of ignorance-plagued adults in the film, Fey provides a unique twist in her hilarious role as the sarcastic math teacher Ms. Norbury. Ms. Norbury proves to be the voice of reason throughout much of the film, and also seems to be the rare teacher in adult cinema who seems to truly empathize with her students to a strong degree. She is not written as the usual conservative teacher who adheres to a strict code of conduct; she is an aggravated divorcee with a secondary job as a bartender. Its not hard to imagine that Ms. Norbury would have been in Saturday detention with the rest of The Breakfast Club a few years earlier (considering that Fey was a teen herself when that film was released, that's not too much of a stretch).
The film also succeeds in analyzing and defining the countless subcultures and "rituals" that are common in today's high school environment through Cady's clever voice-over observations (sample musing: "Halloween is the one night a year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it"). Cady's juxtaposition of high school culture with the culture of the African wilderness also works effectively in emphasizing the severity of her social perils. Not only did the creative forces behind Mean Girls find inspiration in the works of Hughes, but in some ways they have corrected and improved upon the formula.
There are a number of people who will likely avoid this film as a "chick flick", or will shun it out of disdain for star Lindsay Lohan's less-than-stellar recent films; I certainly did. However, those who are willing to give the film an honest opportunity will be pleasantly surprised to discover a truly smart and funny film. And for those who have missed the glorious teen movies of John Hughes, Mean Girls provides some hope that his legacy in the teen movie genre will continue to thrive.