By Henry Goldblatt and Missy Schwartz
Updated December 27, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Before Wilmer, before the tabloid headlines, and definitely before the hospitalization for ”exhaustion,” Lindsay Lohan was known primarily for her acting. And that talent has never been put to better use than in Mean Girls, Tina Fey’s sharp teen satire that grossed $86 million last spring. As Cady, a homeschooled girl who transfers to Hades — excuse me, high school — and rattles the Plastic vs. Mathlete hierarchy, Lohan, 18, channels her own past. ”Everyone’s experienced what goes on in high school,” Lohan told EW in April. ”The movie’s message is: Be yourself. And be careful what you say, and who you say it to.” While Lohan doesn’t have the film’s most memorable line (that honor goes to Rachel McAdams’ Regina, who scolds a fellow Girl on her slang: ”Gretchen, stop trying to make fetch happen! It’s not going to happen!”), she commands every scene she’s in because she infuses Cady with vulnerability and relatability — whether she’s daydreaming of primate mating habits or ruling the entire school with a (curling) iron fist. Lohan’s raspy voice, put to much better use here than on her subsequent album, is the purrfect instrument to channel Cady’s insecurity, tartness, and eventual sorrow.

Forget growing up into a diva, Lindsay, how about staying a Girl forever.