Reviews of Election
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Election arrived amidst a flurry of high school movies in 1999 but it stands apart from the mob. It is not only an example of the 90s indie movie craze in addition to 1999’s love for teenagers, but also the most accurate examination of the culture of American high schools. It’s an important film too, featuring Reese Witherspoon’s best performance ever as George Washington Carver High School’s sassy brainiac Tracy Flick, the sunny-blonde whose cheery disposition does little to hide her megalomania. Further, it launched the career of Alexander Payne, who would go on to direct the Oscar-nominated About Schmidt and Sideways.
Despite paying homage to his role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in two shower shots, Matthew Broderick reaches further than usual in his role as Jim McAllister, a popular teacher who can see past Tracy’s adorable dimples and into her destructive ambitions. But his disdain for the starlet stems from his recognition of her as an unscrupulous student who is willing to hurt people to get her way. Case in point, she seduced McAllister’s colleague the year before, resulting in his termination of employment while she got away with less than a slap on the wrist.
McAllister, however, is not an entirely reliable narrator. A reoccurring question in his class is the distinction between ethics and morals. Yet the distinction, whatever it is, means little to him. He is eagerly involved in preparations for the upcoming school election at the expense of solving problems at home with his wife (Molly Hagan), who desperately wants to have a baby. His growing awkwardness in the classroom hints that not all is well on the home front. When he is home, McAllister spends his time watching porn in the basement, often right after reminding us the viewers how much he loves his wife.
But the extent of McAllister’s own immorality when it comes to destroying Tracy’s run for class president is his recruitment of Paul (Chris Klein), an injured football player, to run against her. Paul isn’t smart but he is a genuinely nice guy, albeit a little blind. He has yet to notice that his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is having a homosexual affair with the young lady who will soon become his girlfriend. In spite, Tammy also joins the race for class president.
Election is interestingly structured and has many layers. Practically every moment is satirical. Product placement is prevalent throughout, but with a dryly comic edge. Tracy champions Coke as the drink of choice. Later, while watching porn, McAllister opens a can of Pepsi. If he is doing that to contradict her it is interesting to note that later a keg of Coke cans is seen in his refrigerator. He too has become a victim of Tracy’s ruthless diatribes.
An entire film could be made on how McAllister took advantage of his disgraced friend’s absence to make a move on his lonely wife, but Election has many stories to tell, connecting them in loose but vital ways. Most of them tell a different tale about the trials of growing up with a surprising understanding of teenage years.
The best moments in the film cross-cut between the three competitors. During a prayer session, for instance, we realize which of the three candidates is true to the promise of class president. The scene in which each of the three candidates makes their case in front of their class demonstrates that high school elections are, above all else, popularity contests, only for Tammy to come out with the most insightful speech of all.
In unexpected ways, everyone ends where they belong at the end of Election. Tracy’s future is foreshadowed metaphorically when her climb atop a chair to adjust her campaign poster leads to her fall. Not content with that, she tears down Paul’s posters and feels no guilt in letting another student take the blame.
McAllister’s final act is in line with everything we have learned about him and is of moral ambiguity. Depending on how we see it, it could be argued that McAllister turns himself around at the end and does the right thing, even if he had to cheat to do it. Regardless, in part because of Paul’s kindness, we can’t help but smile at the outcome and become dismayed when reality sinks in. But like the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne has a darkly funny sense of poetic justice characteristic of Midwesterners. During the film’s sardonic epilogue, we realize that the past often comes back to haunt people. Eventually, it even comes back to bite Tracy Flick.