Election (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Election becomes the first droplet in the recent deluge of teen comedies to score a palpable hit. In the wake of Can't Hardly Wait, She's All That, Never Been Kissed, and about a dozen others, Election arrives like a desperately needed cool breeze on a hot summer night. The film, directed by Alexander Payne and written by Payne and Jim Taylor (based on Tom Perrotta's novel), is smart, funny, and possessed of a razor-sharp edge. It perfectly captures the spirit (if not the particulars) of the high school years in general, and student council elections in particular. A quartet of solid performances only adds to the movie's strength.

For the most part, film makers climbing on board the teen movie bandwagon have little regard for the intelligence of their characters, who are made to say and do incredibly stupid things, or their viewers, who are forced to endure two hours of mindless drivel. With Election, Payne assumes a high level of maturity from his audience, and aims the material at people who don't demand a happy ending at a prom or on a football field. Thankfully, there are no big dances in Election, nor are there any sappy romances. One could easily argue that this is the most pointed high school movie since Heathers. Comparing Election to something like She's All That is akin to likening Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Porky's.

With Election, Matthew Broderick has finally crossed over. For many years, Broderick seemed afflicted with a version of Dick Clark disease that trapped him in youthful roles. Finally, Ferris Bueller has grown up, gone gray around the temples, and joined the enemy's ranks. Here, he plays Jim McAllister, a teacher at Carver High School in suburban Omaha. His specialties are American history, civics, and current events, and he's passionate about his work. In his voiceover narrative, McAllister remarks, "[Teaching] wasn't just a job to me. I got involved. I cared." That caring ultimately gets him in trouble when he becomes enmeshed in the election for school president.

Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, a model student who is running unopposed for the highest student office. She's an overachiever's overachiever. Witherspoon, who has shown her range in a variety of roles (varying from Pleasantville to Cruel Intentions), presents Tracy as all seemingly-perfect students should be presented: superficially good-natured and perky, but a real bitch underneath. McAllister doesn't like Tracy (she was the "victim" in a sex scandal that led to the firing of his best friend), so he decides to encourage another student to run against her in the election. His choice is Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), one of the best-loved and most sincere students at Carver. He's also a football star with a broken leg, and his intelligence is on the level expected from a jock. Paul is popular, but he runs an inept campaign. His idea of addressing the student body is reading a speech as a single run-on sentence, delivered in a monotone. There's also a surprise entrant into the election: Paul's sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), an angry lesbian whose view of student elections is that they're "pathetic charades." The race turns into a tight tug-of-war with Paul remaining completely honest, Tammy seeming not to care, and Tracy resorting to unethical stunts. Meanwhile, McAllister, who is unable to remain a spectator, begins to harbor sexual fantasies about Tracy even as he works to orchestrate her downfall

Election has the sharpest satire of any teen movie made in years. Like the best lampoons, it attacks by exaggerating reality ever-so-slightly and targeting a broad range of subjects. There are no cheap shots and no grotesquely distorted performances. Those who have been involved in school elections will recognize the accuracy of Payne's portrayal. Actually, it's not just school elections that Payne is taking a swipe at, but elections in general. The characters, while representing specific types, are well developed. We care about what happens to them - they're more than just comic foils for a cleverly written screenplay. By the end, we have a rooting interest in the election, primarily because we've all known people like Paul, Tracy, and Tammy.

Payne's previous venture, Citizen Ruth, was also a scathing satire, so it's clear that he understands the mechanisms and approach necessary to make this kind of movie work. Election doesn't pull any punches. Its frank view of sexuality is in stark contrast with the cute or crude versions presented in most teen stories. The film is frequently funny, but, as with all dark comedies, our laughter isn't always comfortable. The use of multiple narrators (McAllister, Tracy, Paul, and Tammy all provide voiceovers) allows the viewer to understand the different perspectives, although one could argue that this technique is overused. It works much better as the story is being set up than once the film is in full gear. The ending is laced with the perfect touch of irony.

Despite being about high schoolers, Election should have as much (if not more) appeal for adults than teen-agers. In fact, teens may avoid this movie for two reasons: the satire is perhaps too on-target and the resolution doesn't offer the mindless fantasy embraced by so many other films. Nevertheless, of all the high school films that have come out in the past two years, this is the one to see. Election may not present the most flattering portrait of today's teenager, but there's a lot of truth in the picture it paints.

Election (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 1999-04-23
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1