Election (1999)

5 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Election” is one of those movies that is even better the second viewing. I saw it once and wasn’t all that impressed. Then days later, I saw it again and was ultimately surprised by how much this film really is. This is a sharp, smart satire about high school with more to it as well. It’s about a high school teacher who is not perfect and gets himself in a weird situation during the student body election. And I have to ask, how often do teachers get as much good treatment as teenagers in even the best teen movies? Let alone a satire of teen movies?

We not only get one narrator, but four different narrators telling their sides of the story in this movie. One is that teacher I mentioned above. His name is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). He gets involved with his students some of the time and is deeply dedicated to his work.

But there is another main character that really gets our attention—a student named Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). To say she’s an overachiever is an understatement. She doesn’t just conquer all; she waves goodbye as she moves from regular student to obsessive, perfect student. She always has her hand up in class, leaving the teacher wishing someone else would raise a hand. She is always perky, neat, seemingly good-natured, and so-called “perfect.” But in truth, she’s a snobby wench. Her overachieving personality and unpopularity to her peers may remind the audience of a female politician. Mr. McAllister doesn’t like Tracy. She was involved as a “victim” in a sex affair that involved McAllister’s best friend, who was also a teacher. And now, she’s running unopposed for class president.

McAllister will not have this, so he decides to encourage another student to run for president against Tracy. His choice is one of the more popular and most sincere students named Paul Metzler (a third narrator played by Chris Klein). Paul was upset because of his broken leg that will not allow him to play football again and now, McAllister brightens his spirits up a little bit and convinces him to make a difference as student body president. Tracy is appalled. She will not stand for this. But what’s worse? Paul’s adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell, the fourth and final narrator) is an angry lesbian whose former lover left her for Paul. So she decides to run for president as revenge.

This leads to a great scene in the gym, in which the whole school watches as the candidates give their speeches. Tracy’s speech is delivered with as much pep as possible, Paul is completely honest but his delivery is monotone, and then everyone is surprised by Tammy’s speech, simply saying that she doesn’t care about any of this and calls it a “pathetic charade.” That gets a huge round of applause from everybody except the other candidates and the teachers because…let’s face it, the students are bored by this “pathetic charade.” I know I was (and I’m sorry for saying so). That’s a great scene.

We follow all of these characters on their sides of the storyline. Mostly, we stay with McAllister. One of the darker sides of the story doesn’t even take place on school grounds. He begins to have an affair with the wife of his original best friend, who was thrown out of the house. It’s totally wrong and he’s just as bad as his friend was with Tracy. But he goes through with it and later, his life and career is all downhill. One of the strangest things about this movie is just how frank it is about sex. We get one too many bizarre sex scenes, one of which features McAllister imagining he’s having sex with Tracy (!). That frankness is a bit uneven and loses the film its fourth star from me.

But the other stuff is great. It’s all nicely directed and well-written by Alexander Payne. There are some big laughs, some touching moments, and despite everything, McAllister is someone to care about. The acting is solid here. Matthew Broderick has come back to high school after movies in the 1980s, such as “WarGames” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” where he played a high school student in each. As a teacher, he seems strangely more comfortable here than in anything else he was in recently. Chris Klein is likable as the jock that really wants to make a difference in school. He doesn’t play Paul as the stereotypical jerk who gets the hot cheerleader friend and puts everybody down. He’s just a nice guy who is completely honest about his campaign. Jessica Campbell is very good as the budding lesbian who can’t take it anymore. But it’s really Reese Witherspoon who really should have gotten an Oscar nomination for this performance as the overachieving Tracy Flick. She is absolutely fantastic here. Watch the scene in which she tries to fix her banner in the school hallway, which winds up destroyed, and watch how she reacts to one little thing becoming a mess. The way she reacts to her imperfect deeds is an absolute classic. Oh, and she thinks she knows how everything works in the world. Well, she doesn’t but she thinks she does.

We’ve all known students like Tracy, Paul, and Tammy, so we care what happens to them. Because of this, we actually care what will be the outcome of the election. They are well-developed and not just comic foils for a terrific script but real people.

There are laughs in “Election,” but this is a dark comedy, so you get the kinds of laughs you would expect about the frankness of sex I tried to explain about above. The ending is a bit overlong but it makes up for the perfect touch of irony that is developed. Director/co-writer Alexander Payne doesn’t go for the cheap laughs or cheap shots or even cardboard characters—he just wants to tell a story. “Election” is a satire that is bright, alive, sharp, funny, and endearing.

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