Election (1999)

Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) mounts her campaign for Student President. She must be stopped. "Election."

Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor, based upon the novel by Tom Perrotta. Produced by Albert Berger, David Gale, Keith Samples, Ron Yerxa. Music by Rolfe Kent. Photographed by James Glennon. Edited by Kevin Tent. Production designed by Jane Ann Stewart. Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Phil Reaves, Molly Hagan, Delaney Driscoll, Mark Harelik, Colleen Camp.

“None of this would have happened if Mr. McAllister hadn’t meddled the way he did. He should have just accepted things as they are instead of trying to interfere with destiny. You see, you can’t interfere with destiny. That’s why it’s destiny.”

These are the words of Tracy Flick, who is the center of Alexander Payne’s Election, a delightful satire about a messy race for student government. This statement, so neat, contains much of what you need to know about Tracy Flick’s master philosophy; it is a closed system that could only have been devised by a computer, a sadist, or a politician. She seems innocent enough: dresses conservatively, her hair and nails are perfect, and she flashes a Colgate smile to match her winning disposition. But there’s something about her that is a little too calculated, a bit too ingratiatingly entitled. Beneath her veneer, she has already staked her goals in life with ruthless deliberation, and has already counted those guarding these objectives as collateral damage. With Tracy, there’s one rule: accept or suffer. She is quite a destructive monster, and it’s little wonder: despite her rhetoric and campaign promises, she holds onto a value system that only values one thing: Tracy Flick.

Tracy’s route to student president may indeed be destiny, but if it is, it’s because she demands it into being, which kind of begs the question doesn’t it? As a star student at George Washington Carver High School, she has countless pages dedicated to her in the yearbook, possesses the highest honors, always stands right in front at group photos, and is generally revered by students and teachers as a model of perfect perfectness. Now she covets the Class President title, for no other reason than it would be the crown jewel in her already dazzling tiara of accomplishments. She makes customized cupcakes for each voter, and puts her household button press into overdrive to create campaign props under a mirage of effortlessness. During the peeks into her thought processes that are peppered throughout Election, we gather no thoughts on why she would want the position, or why she would belong in the office, only riffs on why she deserves it. When things don’t go her way, she’s capable of such career-path road rage that one would be tempted to deem her unfit to lead, but that of course presumes a subscription to the theory that government ever gets anything done. Like Richard Nixon, another outsider political figure capable of anger, she wants desperately to be a public servant, despite not seeming to like people very much at all.

The story is told via narration, but not always from the same person because, after all, in high school, no matter how far-reaching the story, it is difficult for a person to focus on something other than themselves. The one man who sees right through Tracy Flick is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who teaches civics, and has spent twelve years in front of classrooms where someone has their hand raised oh-so-high for every question; the kind of overachiever who makes everyone look bad by comparison, faculty included (every school comes equipped with one, and they more or less never leave). Jim has had it up to here with people like Tracy Flick, especially Tracy herself. The previous semester, she seduced a colleague of his and ruined his career, and Jim has treated her like a benign cancer ever since. Of course, according to Tracy, the truth about the colleague is a bit more complicated, but she keeps those facts, and every ounce of her remorse, to herself.

Jim despises Tracy Flick, resents her meddling, and above all detects in her a fraud that must be put in her place. He also feels something alluring about someone so confident, assured and mature (as would most men, regardless of age, legality, or how much they loathe her). So she’s gotta be dealt with. Finally spurred into action, he encourages a star football player named Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who is injured and now literally sees no purpose in life, to run against the unopposed Tracy. Paul is…well, dim, and would not make a good school president, but he might make a better one than Tracy, if only because he wouldn’t inflate his own importance. In one of the film’s most quietly funny scenes, Jim tutors the jock on the values of democracy by breaking it down as simply as possibly, and it still goes right over the kid’s head. Like any good quarterback, Paul accepts Jim’s strategy and forgets his own misgivings, because Jim is, of course, his new coach.

That’s just our starting point, however. Like many good comedies, Election frequently elicits smiles in between laughs, because when we’re not chuckling, we are grinning at the audacity it has to keep going where others would stop. Jim is deeply unhappy at home, going about his husbandly duties like a chore, and the presence of Tracy Flick is like a needle slipping into his only life-preserver: the pride he takes in his work. When he pits Paul against Tracy, it becomes a gateway drug to other acts of rebellion, like when he pursues an affair with a buxom neighbor (Delaney Driscoll). This subplot, potentially heavy, elicits, if not chuckles, at least wry recognition, because it is built out of small moments that ring true. When Jim tries to test the waters for the affair, he nudges her towards a nearby motel and half-jokes “Do you want to get a room?” Her response: a rueful smile, a frown that accepts reality, a curious look, another frown, and then finally: “That’s not funny.” But of course. That’s exactly what would happen. And no, it is not funny. Truthful moments like that are the reason why other moments are funny.

Election is a satire, yes, but it scores its points fairly. It suggests a tweaked reality that is still reality, and I underline that point if only because it seems like a miracle, knowing how movies (especially movies about teens) are usually made. Its landscape is a flat, expansive, nondescript suburb, not distinguishable from millions of other communities where all roads seem to lead to the magnet school. GW Caver High is not art-directed to death, and doesn’t look like a Beverly Hills prep school, but feels like a real place, with a layout that makes sense and where you can even see the bricks. The campaign posters and banners look well-made but also hand-made. The students are all refreshingly, convincingly middle-class, and don’t wear too many designer labels. During one scene set in the school gym, there is a tall construction scaffolding present in the background, for no other reason than to enhance the illusion that this is a real school, that a camera crew just happened to film, and on that day, that’s simply what was there. The school’s Vice-Principal (Matt Malloy) looks not like an actor but like a real school board member. When Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) starts her own bid for election (due to jealous spite) by promising to demolish the student government, there’s a behind-closed-doors faculty debate about whether or not that consists a viable platform. It feels funny enough to be true and feels true enough to be funny.

The whole movie is like this, because it accurately captures the rhythms of high school, since after all elections are nothing but posturing, and high school is where young postures are at their most grotesque. A favored device of Alexander Payne’s direction is to underline inherent contradictions by contrasting what people say and what is actually occurring (notice the scene, for example, where Jim narrates that his wife is his closest “best friend” while visually they couldn’t seem more far apart. Or maybe this little paradox from Tracy, about her affair with Jim’s friend: “Since I grew up without a dad, you might assume that, psychologically, I was looking for a father figure. But that had nothing to do with it at all. It was just that Dave was so strong, and he made me feel so safe and protected.” Or when Tammy protests that she is “not a lesbian, or anything. I fall in love with the person. It’s just that the only people I’ve ever been attracted to happen to be girls.” So…yeah. You know, I’d quote more dialogue at this point, but when would I stop?

The restrained technique is important, because Election never feels like it’s going for laughs; it just finds them. Election makes satirical jabs at a lot of topics: the social structures of high school, the way teenagers take themselves so seriously even when they are most fickle, and they manner in which the prescribe import to things that are,  objectively, not so crucial. The way some students value what looks good on a transcript rather than anything else. And the way some kids can leave school even more narrow and foolish than when they entered. And apathetic school administrations, poorly conceived curriculums, mid-life crises, martial indiscretions, and terrible parenting (like the way Tammy’s unseen parents switch her to a Catholic school, because that’s what her rebelliousness needs –end of story). Plus many more besides. But Election never feels mean-spirited, because rather than humiliate these characters, it simply gives them the platform they need in order to humiliate themselves. Rather than push things, Election watches, and waits for things to happen by themselves. With it’s riffs on sleazy scandals, dirty politics, smear campaigns, and the methods in which candidates pander to their constituents with not a thought about what they’ll actually do in office, the implication is clear: high school elections are a perfect microcosm for the real thing. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Reese Witherspoon, who plays Tracy, is a valuable actress of rich talent, who unfortunately is not often placed in projects where she is asked to draw upon those resources. Here, she marshals all of her skills into a controlled, nuanced performance, even when playing a character that borders on caricature. It’s tricky, and she never tips over into unbelievability, even when she dips her toes in the cartoonish. Notice the exquisite timing where she quickly reacts to Paul Metzler’s feeble justification for running for president, then just as quickly wipes away her confusion. It is a testament to how well-realized Witherspoon’s performance is that, at the end of the day, we feel a little sad for Tracy Flick. At story’s end, where she studies in her Ivy League dorm room while the rest of the kids are out in the hall—being kids—we (and she) grasp the lonely course that she is set upon. People like Flick will usually command power and respect, but they are rarely liked, and when they find love, they rapidly become business arrangements. And that is the life she has chosen, the one she has worked oh so hard to get. That’s the problem with destiny, isn’t it? It’s great if you want it, but if not, it’s…less so.

Election was directed by Alexander Payne (with a screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor, based on Tom Perotta’s novel). He is a distinctive voice in modern films, always selecting projects that are unique and pumping them with vitality (Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt and Sideways are also his). He creates characters that court our empathy if not our love (really, there are no bona-fide likable characters in Election), and he has a sharp eye for detail that transcends conceits into fully fleshed-out stories. He’s sharp and humanistic, not afraid to let poignancy co-exist with wit. Election is very much of a piece with his other work, harboring a sensibility that is wicked and smart, but never harsh. As of this writing, Payne has not made a feature film for a few years, but I find that curiously appropriate, because it is the mark of an artist who only creates when he has something that he needs–and wants–to say. Otherwise, you’re just like that kid you knew in class, who tries way too hard, and always has a hand stuck up high in the air. I wonder whatever became of that kid.

GRADE: A

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