Mean Girls dir. Mark S. Waters

Opens Fri April 30.

That girls can be terribly cruel to each other shouldn't be startling, at least to those of us who once were, or still are, girls. And yet when a handful of books on this topic came out a few years ago you would have thought that a new epidemic had been discovered--with fundraising, celebrity spokespeople, afterschool specials, and colored-ribbon pins soon to follow. These books--Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out, and, to a much lesser degree, Emily White's Fast Girls--dealt in intricate rituals of shunning and social acceptance, the ways that girls sniff each other out and mete out exquisite torment instead of the more masculine forms of hierarchy, such as whacking each other senseless.

This is a concern that crops up periodically in our culture, from Margaret Atwood's exactingly detailed novel Cat's Eye, to a tossed-off moment during Seinfeld (when Elaine learns about atomic wedgies she says, "Boys are sick.... We just tease someone until they develop an eating disorder"), to studies like Carol Gilligan's about at what age girls lose their self-confidence and turn on each other (which influenced therapy styles for years after it appeared). And then, of course, there was Heathers.

Mean Girls is no Heathers--it lacks the surreal quality of the teenage years, the quality that's found a strange but correct analogue in supernatural teen dramas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch--but it's pretty good. Really, when you think about what sort of crap is out there for teenagers, about how teenagers live and interact and what Hollywood thinks is at stake for them (Chasing Liberty, anyone?), Mean Girls starts to look great. It's funny, lively, and smart, with a couple of characters who seem realer than not, and had I seen it as a teenager it might have changed something for me.

It's the story of Cady (which is pronounced like Katie, and is either a nod to proto-feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton or a classic name mangled to be more "interesting"--although another girl is called Janis Ian, which has got to be deliberate) who has been raised, like a wolf, by her zoologist parents in Africa, and is, at the age of 15, matriculated into a public high school. Cady (Lindsay Lohan), you see, is comfortable with the out-and-out aggression of the jungle, but the more covert rituals of ordinary teenagers mystify her.

What happens is that Cady falls in with a group of pretty, popular, and terrifying girls--they're called "the Plastics" by other students, and this doesn't seem to bother them one bit--at first as a kind of spy, to discover their secrets and strip them of their influence, but then as a true insider who finds herself seduced by her own growing power. When Cady turns against the Plastics' queen bee, a willowy blonde called Regina, the result is a showdown of catty spite that causes the school's female population to erupt into madness. There's the obligatory détente, but it is a strange and unsteady and somehow unsatisfactory one--as temporary as any truce you achieve with yourself when you're growing up.

Mean Girls is based (loosely, obviously) on Wiseman's Queen Bees, and is written by Tina Fey, the witty mind behind much of what's good on Saturday Night Live these days. This seems to me to be an unholy marriage that could produce great, if misshapen, children. I am not ashamed to say that I expected great things from Mean Girls, even though it is a teen movie of more or less the same stripe--and the same tenor of marketing campaign--as every other look-alike teen movie released in the last three years (another movie recently released, Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, also features Lindsay Lohan in the lead role as the new girl in school trying to fit in). The presence of Fey is very heartening, of course: The tired language of self-help is her meat and drink (Fey can turn a joke on something as small as syntax), and Wiseman's book is full of the kind of tired catch phrase--like self-esteem, like empowerment--that SNL has parodied pretty mercilessly over the years.

As a result, Mean Girls is uneven, although happily uneven: a lopsided hybrid of teen comedy, adult comedy, and lesson. There are moments of writing so smart you want to stand up and cheer (some helpful students map out the lunchroom hierarchy for Cady, pointing out the usual gathering places for jocks, nerds, and "girls who eat their feelings"), and then you have to sit down and wait a while for this kind of insight to poke its head up again (kind of like you do in the last half-hour of SNL). And there are a few SNL cast-member roles, with that awkward sheen those roles tend to have, the stilted aura of something that would be funny in a three-minute sketch but that suffers from the scale and attention of a feature film. However, Mean Girls, unlike other SNL movies, knows the virtue of restraint (the joke, for example, about the law of the jungle, about the hierarchy of the watering hole, only comes up twice, which keeps it funny).

But both respecting and lampooning your source material is an awkward stance for a movie. Ostensibly this is a feminist film--not just about girls taking power for themselves, but about using it wisely--but the feminist teacher (played by Fey) is hapless and a bit pathetic, even in her moment of glory. As if, having finally made its point, having finally made the brave gesture of showing teenage girls something really worth knowing, the film can't help making a joke at its expense. The only characters who seem to escape this fate are the arty, punky, gay kids who already hate themselves, and are therefore unpunishable. They are, it should be said, the kind of people who end up running your local alternative weekly. You should be nice to them.