In the decade since its release, “Mean Girls” has firmly established itself as a modern classic. When it comes to the movie’s stars, those most frequently mentioned are tabloid mainstay Lindsay Lohan as the wide-eyed but shrewd Cady Heron; screen darling Rachel McAdams as queen bee Regina George; and perennial ingénue Amanda Seyfried as the weathervane-bosomed Karen Smith. But often lost in this shuffle is Lacey Chabert as everyone’s favorite Toaster Strudel heiress, Gretchen Wieners.
Sure—Gretchen’s doomed renaissance of “fetch” is probably the most quoted part of Tina Fey’s script, but we’ve become so accustomed to the dichotomy of outcast/prom queen in “Mean Girls” predecessors such as “Heathers” and “Clueless” that we don’t give enough credit to Chabert, whose every line reading presents an in-limbo character with no clear precedent in those earlier movies.
This is particularly impressive given that Chabert herself never attended a large public school like North Shore. In fact, she didn’t attend a traditional school at all; having grown up a child actor (most memorably on “Party of Five”), she was tutored on set and has said that she envied her older sisters’ high school experiences. All the same, her professionalism is likely what earned her the role of Gretchen in the first place. Various actors were considered for the other big roles: Lohan was originally cast as Regina; Seyfried was originally cast as Cady; Scarlett Johansson and Ashley Tisdale (“High School Musical”) auditioned to play Karen. But Chabert was the first and only choice for Gretchen, and Chabert’s deft depiction of Gretchen’s self-doubt makes it clear why.
Gretchen’s desperation is so strong because she is the only Plastic who truly believes in the supposed tenets of the clique. Regina pooh-poohs them, bending them to her will. Cady is alternately disgusted and entranced by them. Karen—well, Karen doesn’t know anything, let alone know anything better. But Gretchen is truly the Brutus of the group, the one who has fashioned her life according to the rules of the imaginary Plastic playbook and therefore expects to be rewarded accordingly. When Cady enters the picture, she upends that order, and Gretchen flails more than anyone else.
This is what Chabert captures so brilliantly: In her portrayal, Gretchen is fear incarnate, all compressed limbs and lumps in her throat and nervous hands applying lip gloss as if it’s an essential life force. (Look for the nasal intake of breath when Gretchen realizes that she’s revealed Regina’s rhinoplasty to Cady.) But despite this, Gretchen’s deployment of “fetch” increases in comfort over the first half of the movie. In fact, at the Christmas pageant, she pronounces it joyously before Regina shuts it down for good. This is because Gretchen is so subservient to the system created under Regina that she sees her ideal role as first a champion and then a practitioner of its values. Regina’s dismissal, then, plays into all of Gretchen’s insecurities, and Chabert conveys all of this in a molting reaction shot.
As shown in the movie’s DVD extras, Gretchen’s breakdown—during which she likens Regina’s dictatorship to that of Caesar in front of her English class, then sells Regina out to Cady in the girls’ bathroom—is filmed in front of a green screen so that the change of location could be captured fluidly. As a result, Chabert has to convey the extent of Gretchen’s wounded ego in one logical movement. She rises so gamely to the challenge that it’s like watching the Kübler-Ross stages of grief in a single monologue.
By the end of the movie, despite Gretchen’s self-absorption (“I’m sorry that people are so jealous of me, but I can’t help it if I’m popular!”), she emerges as an endearing figure who simply wants to belong somewhere—wants it so much, in fact, that she learns Vietnamese in order to join the “Cool Asians.” Chabert manages to portray Gretchen’s newfound comfort with one swift flip of her hair. In a swarm of queen bees, that kind of talent strikes me as truly buzzworthy.
Rakesh Satyal is the author of the Lambda Award–winning novel “Blue Boy.”