|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 19 October 1999|
High school teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and star student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) have very different perspectives on the student body election that changed both their lives - surprisingly, Jim’s rather more than Tracy’s. At the outset, Jim is aware that his best friend and colleague’s affair with the underage Tracy ruined the man’s marriage and job, while the high school girl’s life plows forward, her ambition to get ahead superceding all else. Jim thinks he holds no grudge, but when Tracy seems to be running unopposed for student president, Jim decides that democracy will best be illustrated if she has an opponent and persuades dim but popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Tracy is furious, becoming even more so when Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) throws her hat into the ring on an anarchic note, vowing to dismantle the student body apparatus altogether if elected.
‘Election’ works schematically, with Tracy’s insufferably perky, ferocious ambition, Jim’s sanctimonious resentment and Paul’s clueless meandering through the process all reminiscent of behavior detectable in actual political campaigns. Witherspoon particularly gives such an intense performance that she exudes a sort of magnetism at the same time that her character is repellent - this kind of focused energy cannot be ignored. The odd thing about Tracy is that she doesn’t do anything genuinely horrible; it’s her overall, self-serving phoniness more than any single action that makes her scary. Jim, on the other hand, is able to seem well-intentioned, even though he betrays the trust of everyone around him. At the mercy of his own impulses, he does give some genuine thought to the fates and feelings of those around him - just not enough to keep him ethical in word and deed. Broderick’s gee-whiz manner helps underscore Jim’s view of himself as a nice guy. Klein, meanwhile, makes Paul’s thick-headed but good-hearted outlook amusing.
The ‘Election’ DVD comes with an audio commentary from director/co-scenarist Payne, who helpfully shares what effect he’s going for with individual shots and visual motifs. His observations are interesting, even if they give us cause to reflect that if the details require this much explanation to be noticed, perhaps they’re a bit too subtle to achieve the intended effect the first time around.
We’ve all seen real-life elections like ‘Election,’ disillusioning and demoralizing affairs in which apathetic voters are confronted with the evil of two lessers. These face-offs would be tragic if they weren’t so hopelessly ridiculous. The subject is always a ripe target for comedy, and Payne and Co. strike some bull’s-eyes. However, because the film is so relentlessly critical of the characters (all hypocrites and/or idiots), these aren’t people we want to spend a lot of time with; they make Payne’s point while wearing out their welcome before they leave. It’s possible, therefore, to appreciate what ‘Election’ accomplishes without exactly liking it.