Robin’s Underrated Gems: Election (1999)

If there was one element of high school that I was completely indifferent to, it was the student council elections. I honestly didn t pay any attention to them, never voted and could care less about who won. In fact, there was probably lifeless void surrounding me that was created by how little I cared about these elections. The way I looked at it, the main objective for anyone who ran in these things was to have something to put on their resume, and that they wouldn’t really change a damn thing about the school if they won. Alexander Payne’s black comedy, Election, is a film that gets all these details right and delivers a lot of satirical points that can easily be applied to real-world politics as well. Alexander Payne burst onto the scene in 1996 with Citizen Ruth, a black comedy about abortion that made the surprising decision not to simply deliver a pro-choice or pro-life message, but actually presented all of its characters in the same satirical light. Election adheres to that same philosophy. None of the characters here are one-dimensional and the film is not afraid to showcase both the pros and cons of these people. In spite of garnering a lot of critical acclaim and earning Payne an Academy Award nomination for “Best Adapted Screenplay”, Election did not do very well at the box office on its original release, probably because it was a much more thought-provoking and unconventional film about high school than most of the other formulaic teen comedies which were released during this same time period. Of course, Payne would go on to achieve both critical and commercial success with About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants, and the latter two films both garnered Payne a “Best Adapted Screenplay” Oscar. In my spite of his later successes, however, I still believe that Election remains Alexander Payne’s best work.

Election was adapted from a novel by Tom Perrotta, who had used the 1992 Presidential election (where Ross Perot made the surprising decision to run as a third-party candidate against Bill Clinton and George Bush) as the basis for his story. He was also inspired by a controversial incident that took place at Memorial High School in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where a pregnant student was elected homecoming queen , but the administration was caught destroying some of the ballots in order to prevent her from winning. Election takes place at a high school in Omaha, Nebraska, and focuses on four major characters who each provide their own perspective and voice-over narration for the story. Much of the movie is told from the point of view of a teacher named Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who is well-respected and well-liked and loves his job, but seems to be trapped in a boring marriage. The biggest overachiever in the school is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the kind of straight-A student who gets involved in every school activity but has very few actual friends, and believes that winning the student council election is the most important thing ever and a potential stepping stone for bigger things. Tracy seems very cheerful and perky on the outside, but conceals a vindictive mean streak, and Jim sees right through that. Jim has never liked Tracy ever since she had an affair with a fellow teacher who also happened to Jim s best friend, which wound up getting him fired. He decides to devote all of his energies to sabotaging Tracy’s chances of winning the election, while also dealing with his own personal issues and attempting to conduct an affair with his former friend’s ex-wife on the side.

Since Tracy has no real competition in the election, Jim s strategy is to encourage Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), the school’s good-natured but dim-witted football star, to run against her. Even though he is totally unqualified for the job, his popularity gives him a solid shot at defeating Tracy. A further complication ensues when Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run in the election as well. Tammy’s decision is made entirely out of spite since her best friend, whom she had a massive crush on, has decided to start dating Paul and is running his campaign. Tammy is not a popular student, but suddenly garners a lot of support after making an impassioned speech about what a farce the whole concept of student council elections really is. Election is dead-on with its satirical jabs at student elections and high school in general. I’m sure we all knew someone just like Tracy Flick in high school, who seemed to take everything way too seriously and was capable of backstabbing people and doing unethical things to achieve what they desired. At this point in her career, Reese Witherspoon was not yet an A-list star, but had already been making a name for herself as one of the best young actresses in Hollywood, and this performance played a big step in elevating her to the next level. Witherspoon is just dynamite in the role, finding the perfect balance between the character’s bitchy side and her cheerful exterior. Even though it’s easy to understand how someone like Jim could develop an intense hatred for her, Tracy is not entirely unsympathetic, particularly when you see how much her overly ambitious mother has driven her to succeed since birth. Tracy’s persona contrasts well with the characters of Paul and Tammy. Election marked Chris Klein’s film debut and while he’s never shown himself to be an actor of great range, he’s perfectly suited to play the clueless Paul. While Jessica Campbell would not do much else after Election and has pretty much disappeared from acting, she does a solid job as Tammy, particularly during her angry auditorium speech.

Of course, Election marked a real eye-opening role in the career of Matthew Broderick, and it was truly inspired decision to cast a grown-up Ferris Bueller in the role of a vindictive teacher. Broderick is one of those youthful-looking actors who never seems to age and it was hard for him to really expand his range in the nineties, since he still looked and sounded like a teenager even while approaching 40. However, Jim McAllister is an ideal role for him and he does a tremendous job at playing a character who seems likable most of time, but is capable of doing mean and spiteful things. Broderick is particularly good at portraying Jim during his downward spiral in the second half of the film, where he subverts his traditional “nice guy” screen image by making some horrible judgment calls and having everything go wrong for him. It’s pretty ironic that Jim that hates Tracy for a lot of the same things that he himself is guilty of, and it’s obvious that a lot of his behaviour evolves from repressed sexual feelings towards her. In the end, Election has a lot to say about the superficiality of student elections and how easily these same problems can translate into real-world politics. It’s likely that a person like Tracy Flick could go on to achieve a successful political career, and Jim’s concerns that Tracy could take the bad habits she learned in high school politics to do some major damage in the real world are not so farfetched. At the time Election was released, theaters were being flooded with mindless teenage flicks such as She’s All That, Never Been Kissed and 10 Things I Hate About You, so it’s likely that audiences just weren’t in the mood for a teen comedy that made political statements and actually attempted to portray the painful reality of high school with some accuracy. Over the past decade, however, Election has built up a pretty decent following and is looked on by some as one of the best high school films of the modern era. Because his later works have been so successful, Election is still the most underappreciated film of Alexander Payne’s career, but it definitely should not be ignored.

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