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Mid spring is the beginning of graduation season. And in 2019 two important school-based films mark major anniversaries: April 30 was the day “Mean Girls” debuted in cinemas 15 years ago and May 7 is the day, 20 years ago, that “Election” cast its ballot to become one of the most beloved satires of a teenager’s rite of passage.
Both remain in the public consciousness and still resonate as keenly today as they did when they were first released.
In “Election,” perky, obsessive and often insufferable Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is preparing to run for student president unopposed, but thanks to the meddling of social studies teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) who has reached his limit with his over-achieving pupil, Flick must now campaign against popular injured football hero Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). Feuds and vengeful acts ensue as the character’s involvements and motivations are brought to light in the most public of ways.
Teenage Cady Stanton (Lindsay Lohan) is the new student in class and must face the realities of her first exposure to public school life in “Mean Girls.” She soon falls under the spell of a group of ultra-popular girls known as the Plastics and their leader Regina George (Rachel McAdams), losing her individuality and real friends along the way. The film also stars Tim Meadows, Amy Poehler, Ana Gasteyer and Tina Fey, who also wrote the screenplay.
Both films examine universal school themes of peer pressure, ambition, fitting in and the effects of bullying. Due to excellent scripts and standout performances from the leads, both also are more than just a straight-forward look at the trials and tribulations of coming of age. Lohan and Witherspoon show us characters who have the will and smarts to succeed, but also the vulnerability and insecurities so prevalent at that age.
Lohan and Witherspoon deliver fully-formed characters on the cusp of adulthood. Neither lack self-confidence and both have the ability to turn surprisingly vicious. When Tracy goes tit for tat with Mr. McAllister she has no issue with laying his personal problems out on the verbal battlefield, even going so far as to suggest illegality on the part of the stunned teacher. Cady’s transformation is depicted physically, in the form of an imagined cat-fight sequence over the possession of a boy. It’s a jungle out there, or in these cases, inside the school cafeteria and classrooms.
The two movies examine real world issues in the microcosm of high school. The adherence to or breaking of rules, social hierarchies, the importance placed on competition and the over-arching need to succeed above all else. Both are populated with stereotypical characters: the arrogantly oblivious popular girl, the frumpy teacher yearning for an adult emotional connection, the big-hearted nerd and the sweet but dim-witted jock, but the portrayals are rarely one-note.
The films were released at a time when smartphones and social media weren’t a fixture of teenage life. The public shaming is still mortifying, but here we see it play out within the arena of the schoolyard and in the emotional aftermath for the leading characters. Sure, the Burn Book in “Mean Girls” is a precursor of social media, a place for bullies to start rumors and spread gossip about those they fear or believe are not of their ilk. And like the digital successors of today, the Burn Book did not remain private for very long.
Though “Election” was critically well-received, it made a middling $14-plus million at the domestic box office. But its legacy has resonated across the decades thanks to its central character and her comparative uses, especially in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was faced with media think pieces about her, and that election’s similarities to Tracy and the brutal toll of campaigning.
“Mean Girls” has grossed almost $130 million at the worldwide box office and inspired countless memes and a Broadway musical version. Fans continue to proclaim that “fetch” will never happen, “I’m not a regular mom, I’m a cool mom!” and the film’s defining quote of, “You can’t sit with us!”
“It has metastasized,” screenplay writer Fey told Variety of the “Mean Girls” legacy, in particular the notion that “calling someone a loser doesn’t make you a winner” and its appropriateness for modern times. “It’s so incredibly obvious, but still, apparently, we need to be reminded… We all do it, on both sides. Once you’re laying the mud, you’re all the mud.”