Tracy Flick... I've seen a lot of overambitious students in my years of teaching who've come and gone, but Tracy Flick was a special case...
Over the past few years, there have been a number of films released in the 'set in a high school' genre. These offerings, targeted at the burgeoning Baby Boom Echo audience of moviegovers, have taken familiar stories of yesteryear and recontextualized them from the teen perspective. Some of the entrants in this genre have been above average, most notably "Cruel Intentions" ("Dangerous Liaisons" set in a high school), "Jawbreaker" (crime caper gone awry set in a high school), "Wild Things" (sleazy film noir set in a high school), and of course, "Clueless" ("Emma" set in a high school), the film that kick-started the whole 'set in a high school' genre. However, most of the offerings have been mediocre at best, offering mindless melodramatics and big prom night dance sequences instead of intelligent drama and pointed observations on the social mores high school life. Films that make up the latter category include "She's All That" ("My Fair Lady" set in a high school), "The Faculty" ("Invasion of the Body Snatchers" set in a high school), and "10 Things I Hate About You" (Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" set in a high school).
Now the latest entrant into the genre has arrived, only this time it is a political satire set in a high school. "Election" is akin to "Primary Colors" set in a high school, sardonically deconstructing the political process with some pointed observations and acerbic wit. Writer/director Alexander Payne, whose previous satire "Citizen Ruth" took aim at the abortion controversy, has created a smart, hilariously funny, and well-acted comedy that makes interesting comparisons between student council elections and political shenanigans in the adult world.
It is election season at Carver High School, and it is time for the student body to choose their elected representatives for the student council in the upcoming year. So far the only candidate running for the presidency is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon of "Pleasantville"), an ambitious overachiever with superior academic performance, unbridled ambition, and far too many extracurricular activities. And though she may seem to be a model teenager at first glance, underneath the spirited facade is a manipulative, petty, and self-absorbed narcissist.
When I win the presidency, we'll be spending lots of time together, and I want our time to be harmonious and productive, you know.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick of "Godzilla") is a civics teacher who is passionate about teaching and cares deeply for the welfare of the student body. He also has a severe disdain for Tracy, able to see through her perky facade and well aware of the fact that she was involved in a sex scandal that resulted in the dismissal of his best friend from the school's faculty. When he sees that Tracy is running unopposed, he feels compelled to find another student to run against her, in a bid to stop the resident overachiever's meteoric rise to power.
Jim finds the school's 'salvation' in Paul Metzler (Paul Klein), an affable yet dim-witted jock. Although he is one of the most popular students in the school, he has no clue on how to run a campaign let alone a student council. Meanwhile, a dark hose enters the electoral race, Paul's younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a lesbian whose entire campaign is founded on a 'who cares?' sentiment. As the campaign for the three candidates intensifies, Jim finds himself increasingly embroiled in unethical behavior in order to prevent Tracy from winning the election, while becoming blind to his own narcissistic and destructive behavior.
"Election" takes us into a microcosm where the smear campaigns, sexual hijinx, and dirty tricks associated with your typical election campaign are all exaggerated and lampooned in the context of the high school student council. The archetypal candidates, the special interest groups, the sway of public opinion, and the scourge of corruption are all embodied in the characters and situations that Payne has created. Through the use of good comic timing and breezy pacing, "Election" never wears out its welcome, providing plenty of brain candy and hilarious situations to keep your interest piqued.
Payne's surprisingly intelligent and funny script hits the target with its diverting exuberance, caustic irony, and wry commentary. His script uses an interesting narrative style in which the story is told through the use of shifting narrators, moving from each main character to the next, providing numerous yet obviously biased perspectives on the election. And while it does eventually come close to overwhelming the story with its numerous (and some may say gimmicky) asides, the 'he said, she said' exposition sheds more light on the character that is speaking than what is actually being said.
The strong script is further buoyed by some fine performances, in which the actors convincingly take on the misguided motivations that makes each of the flawed characters tick. Of note are Witherspoon, who continues to demonstrate her range, and Broderick, who finally plays a substantive role.
Who knew how high she would climb? How many people she would step on?
"Election" is a welcome wake-up call to all those sugarcoated and empty-headed teen romances that have been polluting the megaplexes in recent months. And while it lacks the idealized reverie of high school life that most films of the genre pander to, it more than makes up for this sobering reality check with its scathing attacks on elections in general and how petty self-interest often sabotages the political process.