Screenplay : Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (based on the novel by Tom Perrotta)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Matthew Broderick (Jim McAllister), Reese Witherspoon (Tracy Flick), Chris Klein (Paul Metzler), Jessica Campbell (Tammy Metzler), Mark Harelik (Dave Novotny), Phil Reeves (Walt Hendricks), Molly Hagan (Diane McAllister), Delaney Driscoll (Linda Novotny), Colleen Camp (Judith R. Flick)
Every American high school has one: the ultra-involved, over-ambitious, perfectly groomed goody-goody who always knows every answer in class. Every high school has one of these bubbly busy bees, the ones who take up half a page in the index of the yearbook because they're involved in so many organizations.
In "Election," the busy bee of Omaha, Nebraska's Carver High School is the irrepressible and cutesy-named Tracy Flick, played by Reese Witherspoon as a comically perky go-getter who is always hiding her seething, slit-eyed rage behind a dandy smile. When the film opens, Tracy is busy setting up in the front hall of the school in order to get enough signatures so she can run for student council president, which, at this point in her life, is her ultimate aspiration. And, she has the perfect name for the perfectly intolerable campaign slogan: "Pick Flick."
The movie centers on the events that take place during this seemingly unimportant high school election, an event that ends up having serious ramifications for all involved, especially Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), an involved history teacher who has won the Teacher of the Year award an unprecedented three years. However, McAllister hides a secret behind his caring facade: he is fed up with seeing Tracy succeed at everything she does. Subverting the very democratic process he teaches in his civics class, McAllister tries to derail Tracy by convincing the dim-witted but essentially good-hearted football jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her. Soon, Paul's younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a lesbian who is bitter because her love interest left her for Paul, decides to run as well.
By this point, the whole election is in turmoil, and it comes as little surprise that almost everyone involved stoops to some kind of illegal activity to achieve his or her goal. For Tracy, the goal is winning because she deserves it. For McAllister, the goal is Tracy losing. For Tammy, the goal is simply the destruction of the entire student government, which she sees as a ridiculous waste of time.
The story is narrated by these four central characters, all of whom are unreliable in the extreme. Director/writer Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor, who scripted together from a novel by Tom Perrotta, use the voice-over narration to contrast actual events and characters with the characters' often deluded perceptions of those events, themselves, and others, which results in moments that are sometimes funny and sometimes sad.
"Election" has an eclectic rhythm and tone that is all its own; it is wildly and fascinatingly uneven, mixing broad satire with bathroom humor, tragedy, parody, and even elements of the grotesque (McAllister's spends the last third of the film looking like Quasimodo with a swollen eyelid after he is stung by a bee).
At its heart, it is a black comedy, but "Election" is also a subtle and complex satire, not only about high school, but about our national character and the current state of democracy. In a nutshell, it can be seen as a satire on how we hate overachievers. We like success, we like people who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and beat the odds, but we detest people who succeed unconditionally and rub others' noses in it with their smug assurance; basically, we hate winners who win all the time. This is best exemplified by those who can't stand Bill Clinton: it's not his politics or his policies or even his questionable morals that drive his detractors mad, but the fact that he always manages to win, no matter what the cost to himself or others.
Tracy Flick is like that, and it's not hard to see why McAllister seems so hell-bent on seeing her defeated. Of course, he can't make that public, and some of the movie's best moments show him trying to contain his distaste for her while playing the dutiful role of the supportive teacher. He tells her good luck, when he actually wants to tell her something else entirely.
The challenge the film sets up for itself is making every character both despicable and pitiable at the same time. We can understand McAllister's plight and why he feels the need to sabotage Tracy's campaign, thus we feel sorry for him and a bit let down when he gets caught. On the other hand, he is an adult who makes his own choices and his own mistakes, and much of his behavior is really quite repulsive, especially for a teacher who is intended to be role model.
Tracy, meanwhile, is so easily detestable because she arouses envy with her ridiculous cavalcade of uncontested success and ire because much of that success is accomplished by stepping on others. However, she is also quite pitiable because we realize that, despite all her accomplishments, she will never feel accepted by others because her existence revolves around her separating herself from her peers via her superiority in everything she does. Tracy is destined to spend her life lonely because she can't stand having equals.
The only exception to this despicable/pitiable polarity is Paul, who is mostly just pitiable because he's too dumb to know that he will most likely live the rest of his life in complete mediocrity. Paul is an odd number in the movie's equation, and it's hard to get a reading on him. He's so unassuming and good-natured that he doesn't fit in with the rest of the characters, all of whom have malevolent undercurrents and hidden motives for everything they do. Perhaps the movie is saying that people like Paul--nice, dumb, and unambitious--are the only decent people left in the fast-paced, winner-take-all culture of modern America. If so, it is a sad statement, indeed.
Of course, one of the best aspects of "Election" is that, like Payne's freshman effort, the wildly subversive "Citizen Ruth" (1996), he keeps his position in the film essentially neutral. In "Citizen Ruth," he successfully skewered both sides of the abortion debate, and consequently made enemies of both pro-lifers and pro-choicers. In "Election," he stands back and points to the flaws of both the over-ambitious and those who wish to derail them out of spite, and both sides end up losers.
©1999 James Kendrick