Stop trying to make un-formulaic movies happen: What “Mean Girls” taught me about stories

Last week was the tenth anniversary of the movie “Mean Girls”. It is not the first time (and it certainly won’t be the last time) that I completely missed out on an icon of pop culture, but I had not seen it up until last week. Maybe I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, maybe I wanted to see what is seemingly the last instance of pre-crazy Lindsay Lohan, maybe I was just bored on a weekday night, but I watched Mean Girls.

Most importantly I now know what “On Wednesdays we wear pink” and “Stop trying to make fetch happen” mean.

However, the first thing I noticed is that the movie is a prime example of the genius of Tina Fey. I have always been a fan of her intelligent comedy of Fey from SNL and 30 Rock and this is just another extension of her other efforts.

Much of the commentary about the movie has been on the complex group dynamics of teenagers and specifically teenage girls. Numerous others have commented on the post-“Queen Bees and Wannabes” world and having no experience has a teenage girl or a sociologist, I really don’t have anything else to add.

What struck me after watching what I thought was a decent movie, I was still a little disappointed. Despite memorable moments that have embedded themselves in pop culture over the past decade, I was disappointed because of how formulaic I found the movie.

Can we have a romantic comedy that doesn’t have the cliche:

  • Main character falls in love with secondary character
  • Main character goes through extensive changes in an effort to woo the secondary character
  • Main character gets some kind of success with secondary character
  • But the potential relationship is ruined when the extensive changes end up changing the main character too much
  • Main character realizes the error of their ways and performs a major act to make ammends
  • Secondary character realizes that the “original” main character is back and they live happily ever after

But over the past few days I have been re-thinking my criticisms. Perhaps my studies in what actually constitutes a story has led me to conclude that perhaps what I thought of as “formulaic” is really just the necessary introduction of conflict that makes a story what it is.

The difference between these stories is then the supporting details, which in the case of Mean Girls is done well due to the intelligent comedy of Tina Fey that I discussed earlier.

My lesson learned is that there are so many ways to tell a story and I need to focus less on what story to tell but the change involved in the main character and the twists and details along the way.

Image credit: Joe Wolf, 2010

Question: What is your favorite movie and what about the movie made it your favorite?

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