There’s already something up the moment in which a high school comedy manages to become a dead-on accurate picture of the flaws within the voting system in American politics – something which Alexander Payne’s Election was already aware of. I remember having seen this for my first time back in my early years of high school and while I found it entertaining, it wasn’t until a recent revisit that opened myself up to how it also presented so much more than something entertaining on the surface – it was also much darker and more cynical than I remembered it having been. I have to admit though, it was fun watching it after the presidential election, but to talk about it afterwards it’s suddenly not as fun as we thought. The fact that even a high school comedy film’s campaigning system seems to be better working compared to the federal election only shows a bad sign for the future.
Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, Election revolves all around a high school election and how it is set to affect the lives of a group of four: an overachieving if also insufferable student who aspires to become the head of student council (Tracy Flick), a popular if slow-witted football player (Paul Metzler), his queer adopted sister (Tammy Metzler), and the history teacher (Jim McAllister). While the outline appears it can be seen as something rather simple, for we have a satirical portrait of what the life of people who are behind the system can be like, but something much more comes out especially with the political nature to the satire, giving Election the bite that it carries. It was clear to me from there that Election was more clever than I remembered it having been, and on that count I loved it more than I already did.
It is already established that given the status of each of those behind the system, none of them are especially likable. Tracy Flick is made clear the antagonist of Election, from how she is portrayed as a spoiled brat who will do anything just to get what she wants for her own self gain, but with that said another clear narcissism is present within Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, who does not believe she deserves to carry the title of class president. Like Flick, McAllister is also working a way to find a plan that is supposed to work towards his own gain, so he employs the recovering Paul Metzler to compete against an aggravating Tracy Flick, for he is envious of the future that she is set to have in front of her if she ends up growing into something larger. Yet the fact that we never really are brought to “like” any of these figures we are watching is another part of where the cleverness and the darkness of Election rises.
However, there’s a whole lot to Tracy Flick that ultimately helps Election carry the power which it contains – in its biting political commentary. She is not only shown to us as an overly ambitious young teenager, but their own equivalent of a political wrecking ball within the system, one that will only begin searching for more systems to destroy. It’s clever what this one character represents for a system in which she is set to earn the popular vote, and at the same time another force is trying to work against it by bringing in another figure that lacks the sort of experience the opponent has. It’s interesting how Election takes a high school election and uses it as a backdrop for a grander commentary to come around, for the high school is shown as one system – just like a presidential election for the United States is another. And when a high school comedy has a better grasp at things than reality, suddenly the cynicism becomes even clearer.
All of this comes by as a result of the clever writing on the ends of both Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. The intelligence to how the dialogue is written, together with the equally cynical performances to have come out of the cast, all goes to show where Election works in all of the best ways. Matthew Broderick is always charming to watch whenever he fits within the right role inside of a good film, and to see that thirteen years after playing Ferris Bueller he would eventually go on to playing the role of a high school teacher, it is easy for one to say he’s come a long way. However, the real standout is Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick, shading a light onto that one overachieving student present in every school. For all the funniest moments to have come out of Election from the film’s writing, something frightening comes out when one looks at what else it intends on the inside and it all leads to cynical payoffs for pettiness on all ground.
Election showcases the high school film at one of its highest points. Though it’s apparent that the film feels overshadowed by Wes Anderson’s Rushmore for certain scenes certainly feel as if it is trying to catch a hold of the light said film created, there’s a lot more that ultimately makes Election stand apart on its own. This is how I’d like a high school film to come my way, with all the dark and brooding cynicism coming by amidst all of the funny moments then and there. Everyone is petty, everyone is narcissistic, no one’s going to make the system work better like they claim – and maybe there’s something more coming out when one links it to current events. With all of that having been said, I’d gladly pick Flick for president.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, from the novel by Tom Perrotta
Produced by Albert Berger, Ron Yerxa, David Gale, Keith Samples
Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon
Release Year: 1999
Running Time: 102 minutes
It’s not just funny, but kind of sad, too. That’s the beauty of Payne’s work. Nice review.
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Thank you, Dan!