Saturday, October 24, 2015

Election Movie Review

Alexander Payne’s second film was a brilliant little gem called Election, a satirical look at electoral process through the prism of a high school student council election. The screenplay was adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel by Payne and Jim Taylor and is as true to high school life and character as it is cynically observant of political ambition.

Reese Witherspoon achieved major breakout success playing Tracy Flick, the little bundle of gumption and up-start attitude that comes across as admirable in a teenager, but which has the potential to transition into an adulthood of stepping on everyone to achieve her goals. Matthew Broderick plays the popular history teacher, Jim McAllister, who oversees student government elections. He teaches the students civics and about the difference between morals and ethics – a line he would do well to consider later in the film when he manipulates the election results and cheats on his wife. Mr. McAllister is one of those teachers that students remember their whole lives. He is dedicated and enthusiastic and truly a stand-up guy, even standing beside his friend and colleague Dave Novotni after it’s discovered he’s been having an affair with sixteen-year old Tracy (the one detail I find sort of unbelievable in an otherwise perfect movie because girls like Tracy are not typically sexually ambitious and aren’t targeted by men like Dave.

Much as Jim admires Tracy as a student, he can’t help feeling there’s something off, especially in her running un-opposed for Student Council president. So he encourages the football quarterback, Paul Metzler “You Betz-ler!” to stand for election. Jim is a good guy. What’s so fascinating about this screenplay is the way it establishes him as a protagonist and Tracy as the antagonist. They share narration almost equally so it’ not a perspective issue. It’s about character. And Jim is set up early on as a great teacher, beloved by his students while Tracy is kind of irritating. And all the while Jim is trying to set Tracy up for failure, we are with him – until you remember he’s a grown man and she’s a kid. He’s not wrong about her by any means, but Jesus! She’s a teenager. So Taylor and Payne give us this situation where Jim is played against Dave as the upstanding teacher who doesn’t have sex with his students, thus coercing us into siding with him until he commits moral transgressions in his personal life, forcing us then to question how we view his behavior in school.

All the while the movie is dealing with character, ethics, and morals, it is also a pretty hysterical satire. Tracy treats her running for Student Council as if it were a national campaign for political office, complete with campaign buttons and a PR photo of her casting her ballot. And then at the same time it’s an astute vision of high school students, their relationships, and their teachers. I’ve not seen its equal in terms of getting details so right. Payne cast most of the characters and all the extras with local sin Nebraska, where the movie is set. The kids look like kids. They dress like kids. Even Paul was played by Chris Klein, who was a non-professional from a local high school. He makes such a strong impression as the naïve and sweet, but dumb quarterback that Klein went on to a fairly successful Hollywood career.

I just can’t figure out if the filmmakers bear any cynically satirical ill-will toward Paul. He’s the one character who is really lacking any misconduct or questionable ethics. He’s so nice he doesn’t even feel right voting for himself! But is the fact that he’s so popular yet continues to be devoid of any substance the point? Then there’s the matter of Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who gets into the race as revenge for her brother going out with the girl she was previously romantically interested in. Her candidacy is intended as a mockery of the system. She’s a classic outsider whom students deride and teachers dislike for the subversion she represents. But her speech is met with resounding applause when she declares that her first action as president will be to disband student government so the students no longer have to sit through stupid assemblies.

Sixteen years later this movie remains incredibly funny and devilishly smart. To watch Witherspoon is to witness a performance that is near perfection and continues to be about the best work she’s ever done. It’s lamentable she wasn’t Oscar-nominated for this. It shows real lack of foresight and imagination on the part of Oscar voters, who went with the unmemorable choices of Julianne Moore in The End of the Affair, Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, and Fernanda Montenegra in Central Station. Maybe I’m not being entirely fair because those are astounding performances, but in movies that offered far less richness and lasting effect.

As Alexander Payne has grown throughout his career, his films have become more polished and bigger-budgeted, but no less personal. The affection for character details and refusal to pander is still one of the greatest calling cards of his writing and directing. But as much as I admire About Schmidt or Nebraska, nothing is as warm in my memory as Election.

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