America in 2004 was an oddity. The country was, in some ways, vulnerable: still healing from the wounds left by the terrorist attacks on September 11 three years prior, still discovering new information on the tragedies, still engaging in acts of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in others, the States were shifting to experience growth and change in ways they never had before; so too was the culture.
That year made the internet commonplace in more than half of all homes across the country, saw San Francisco (the city and county!) issue to same-sex couples marriage licenses despite the state not yet legalizing the act and the U.S. lifting the ban on a 23-year-long travel ban that restricted citizens from visiting Libya, brought a Billy Crystal-hosted Academy Awards ceremony to Hollywood (and a staggering 11 Oscars to filmmaker Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), took the Spirit and Opportunity rovers to Mars, marked the beginning of construction on the Freedom Towers in New York, renominated President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, and had a string of hurricanes batter the coastal states and surrounding territories.
2004 also served as one of the strangest years in pop culture history.
Jude Law and Jennifer Aniston were the sexist people alive, former Harvard student and current alien-inside-a-human-skin-suit Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, ‘ship names were popularized with Bennifer (who split after a fiery romance), everyone was obsessed with spray tans, low-rise jeans, and Desperate Housewives. Celebrities attended red-carpet events in flip-flops. FLIP-FLOPS, YOU GUYS. Teen girls from North Dakota to New York City smelt like Britney Spears’ debut perfume “Curious.” Vocal fry was all the rage thanks to Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s deliberately ditzy one-liners (“That’s hot” and “Do they sell Marc Jacobs or Chanel in this grocery store?” and “It’s so comfortable; I’m sunbathing.”) that littered their reality TV series The Simple Life. Gwyneth Paltrow named her daughter after a fruit, and for some reason, movie-goers made The Passion of the Christ a box office hit and tastemakers in the fashion industry made suede boots, camo hats, hip-hugger capris, skinny scarves, and blazers with everything the hottest pieces imaginable.
But of all that happened in 2004, perhaps the one most of us wiped from our memory (save for me, someone who has stanned this film harder than, well, the original Stan stanned Eminem) was a little film that starred Hollywood’s then-It Girl at the height of her stardom: the Lindsay Lohan-led musical comedy Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, which celebrates its 15th anniversary today.
Like the sweaty-bodied fans at a Jimmy Eat World or Incubus or Hoobastank concert flicked their lighters and swayed to the broody indie rock bands’ latest-and-greatests, so too did film critics light up their own torches — taking their mind-flames and setting ablaze Confessions. Reviewers hated the film, believing Welsh director Sara Sugarman to have refused her name and created something decidedly not sweet but sour rotten, not worthy of attention or praise. They found it superficial, eye-rollingly juvenile, cliched and contradictory and concerning in various spots. They said it was formulaic and lame and pandering to young, impressionable girls. They got colorful in calling it a “tacky and boring after-school special,” an amalgamation of “bland, warmed over genre cliches masquerading as a movie,” a “pubescent fantasia without soul or purpose beyond positioning star Lindsay Lohan as the successor to Hilary Duff’s throne.”
At nine years old in 2004, I wasn’t one of these Confessions combatants. At 24 years old today, I’m still not — and I don’t think you, reader, should be, either.
Hear me out.
A cherry bomb on the silver screen, Lohan, just 16 at the time principal photography on Confessions began, is the drama queen for which the movie is named: 15-year-old Lola Steppe, born Mary Elizabeth Steppe, who dreams of life under the bright lights of Broadway and who desperately wants to escape the suburban dread of Dellwood, New Jersey — the slower-paced commuter town to which her mother (played by Glenne Headly) shuffled them after packing up their Manhattan apartment and to which Lola habitually refers as “Deadwood.” Lola’s smart and showy and self-assured. She fancies herself the “flamingo in a flock of pigeons,” she knows she wants to become a famous actress more than she wants to breathe the (cleaner-than-NYC) air around her, she loves Sidarthur lead singer Stu Wolff (“the greatest poet since Shakespeare” played by Adam Garcia), and she’d rather stand out in a garish get-up than be a wallflower at her new high school.
“I shall be a bird in a cage with a good school district,” Lola laments in the early moments of the film. And yet, she’s confident Dellwood can be a place where her star shines: “I look upon my new town as an empty stage to which I’m allowed to bring my own script. In my heart, I feel that a legend is about to be born. That legend would be me.”
Upon her new stage, Lola channels Jackson Pollock, splatter-painting her personality through the Dellwood High halls and quickly forming a bond with Ella Gerard (the always-great Allison Pill), a well-off but worried girl and fellow Sidarthur fan. One would assume that Lola, with her outfits that look both straight out of an issue of a mid-aughts Teen Vogue issue centered on alt trends and ripped from the style inspiration board of an indie rock fan, might be more aligned with the likes of Carla Santini (Megan Fox), the glossy-lipped queen bee whose father acts as Sidarthur’s music lawyer. Fox (who hadn’t yet been blacklisted by Hollywood in the late 2000s following her experience filming the Transformers franchise that led to a falling out with director Michael Bay) plays Carla to icy perfection: she’s ruthless and gorgeous and self-involved, the pinnacle of teenage manipulator who amazes herself when she time and again manages to get exactly what she wants. Like the omega to an alpha, Fox’s Santini truly is the less-overtly-harsh, little-sister-like counterpart to the most famous teen movie villain from the 2000s: Rachel McAdams’ Regina George, who entered our lives with a double air kiss and a flip of her impossibly silky blonde hair the year prior to Confessions’ theatrical launch.
Lola spells trouble for Carla, throwing a wrench in her plans that always go so smoothly. The two girls, the former getting shunned by the latter upon their first interaction, duke it out for the lead role in the theater department’s play Eliza Rocks, a musical take on Pygmalion. Lola lands the coveted part, Carla vows to destroy Lola’s life in every way possible, and the bitter enemies find themselves entangled in a battle of one-ups — with Lola besting Carla in an intense round of Dance Dance Revolution (boy, were the 2000s a simpler time), Carla rubbing in Lola’s face the fact that her daddy dearest scored her tickets to Sidarthur’s farewell concert and the band’s illustrious after-party, and Lola falsely stating that she and Ella managed to snag tickets as well.
Revoked allowances, another web of lies (this time to their parents), and what’s undoubtedly the funnest putting-makeup-on-in-a-moving-mode-of-transportation montage in history lead Ella and Lola, who had her boy toy Sam (Eli Marienthal) steal a glittery red Eliza dress from the costume room so she could pass as an over-18 at the Sidarthur show, to the gates of the venue. They’re locked out and out of luck — but the evening eventually takes them to places they had only ever ended up in dreams and nightmares: an abandoned alleyway, Stu Wolff’s arms, and, briefly, a police station.
Interwoven in all the wackiness are moments characteristic of almost all friendships between young girls and of teens’ journey toward self-acceptance. There’s the issue of lying: Lola’s flair for dramatics lands her in hot water with Ella, who discovers that Lola lied about her father dying years earlier in efforts to make herself sound cooler, as if the more trauma one has experienced directly equates to how charismatic they are. There’s the struggle of balancing responsibility to fulfill a greater purpose against personal emotion: Lola nearly sends her drama teacher Miss Baggoli (Carol Kane, who delivers a performance that’s perfect down to the last ultra-tight curl on her head) into cardiac arrest when she, disheartened to find that her idol is a drunk, refuses to perform in Eliza Rocks. There’s the coming-of-age moment in rising to the occasion even if it hurts, the melting away of barriers in admitting your feelings for a boy, the instance of redemption in sticking it to the naysayers and earning back your pride. Anyone who was ever a teen girl — drama queen or otherwise — can relate to Lola’s story here, if only they look just a layer or two below the surface-level sparkle.
Wonderfully and smartly written — painting Lola in a compassionate light to view her exactly as teenage girls are: flawed and frantic and sometimes selfish and hilariously unaware of the word around them but really big-hearted with huge dreams and a head full of plans — Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen came at a time that wasn’t ready for it. Too many focused on the “teenage” and the “drama” of the film’s title, automatically feeling like Confessions wasn’t for them and thus allowing their eyes to glaze over during viewings. Too many found its brightness off-putting. Too many thought that Confessions was serious when it soaked in cliches, rather than self-aware and satirical. Too few saw the film for what I and countless others did from the start: a witty and vibrant piece of cinema that is, in the same breath, over-the-top and down-to-earth — and entertaining because it is both. Yes, Lohan’s Lola wears Coke bottle cap necklaces, says she feels a kind of sadness only Hamlet could understand, and sings to the heavens on a stage that looks far too sleek to exist in a high school auditorium. But she also brings out a brand-new side of her brand-new best friend — and Ella does the same in return. There is a heart here in Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, and it beats louder than a word-slurring Stu shouts whilst slumped in a heap of rubbish.
All my ramblings don’t amount to a takeaway that exalts Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen as a revolutionary film, or denounces anyone who didn’t adore it as much as I do as wrong. Confessions isn’t life-changing — it wasn’t in 2004, when the world slammed its doors on it, and it won’t be now — but it is delightfully escapist while still ringing true in a lot of different ways. And Lohan’s big number at the end of Confessions? Lizzie McGuire at the Italian Music Awards could never.
What this all does, however, amass to is a simple request: If you gave halter tops and two-toned sunglasses a chance in 2004, give Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen one now, 15 years after the fact.