As I've gotten older I've found less and less to enjoy about teen movies. In many ways that makes sense, because I'm growing farther away from being a member of their target audience, but it's also a bit sad, because as Roger Ebert was fond of pointing out movies are empathy machines. The goal is to put you inside someone else's head and to get you to empathize with their struggles. Given that most of us have been teenagers at some point it shouldn't be that hard to make a teen movie that does a good job of putting a viewer of any age in a teen's shoes and making us care about their problems.
As I was watching Mean Girls last night I realized that part of the reason why so many teen movies don't really work for adults is because they have stakes that are so specific to being that age. Part of the problem with License to Drive, for example, is that the story depends in large part on whether or not this kid will get both his license and a car he can drive. That character really cares about whether he solves his problem right now but I know that if he doesn't solve it right now he'll do it next week. It's going to get solved one way or another, so why do I care about when it gets solved?
What separates Mean Girls from a lot of inferior teen movies is that it does a good job of establishing universal stakes. Mean Girls is about one woman's quest for social acceptance, and everyone wants to be accepted no matter how old they are. I mean, yes, the face of that peer pressure changes because most adults don't live in the world of codified cliques that the characters in Mean Girls do. And yes, adults have an extra layer of maturity which allows them to make better decisions about who they want to be accepted by and what they are willing to do to get that acceptance. But there's a reason why social acceptance appears in Maslow's hierarchy of needs: human beings are social creatures and we desire social contact. If you make a movie that's about the fundamental desire to be accepted by your peers you're going to touch a near universal nerve. Mean Girls takes place in a high school the same way that Dostoyevsky's books took place in Russia: it's a specific setting, but it really could have been anywhere that people are vain or absurd.
That said, it would be misleading to talk about Mean Girls as a serious movie with high stakes. It's a light comedy that's consistently funny, and you do get a sense all these characters have to do to solve a lot of these problems is hang tough long enough to graduate. But I do think there's a reason why this movie has stayed relevant in the pop culture landscape longer than a lot of the teen movies that followed, and that's because the jokes are covering up something important, which is that buried inside most of us is a needy core which seeks approval. We can try to pretend that it isn't there, but a full grown Cady Herron is still going to have moments where she struggles with that the same way that I still have moments where I struggle with that. It's a monster that can be held off but not really beaten.
Come to think of it, a movie which is merely about getting a drivers license sounds pretty sweet right now...