Election (1999)

Election is a funny movie about the ins and outs of high school politics, while also taking shots at the everyman teacher, and also pretty much anyone else who might possibly even be tangentially related to the school environment. Alexander Payne’s film doesn’t discriminate, and that’s something to be grateful for. Anyone can and will be a target in this film, and yet the satire is done with good intentions and isn’t particularly mean-spirited, which allows the film to be fun even for those who might be the targets.

It’s also all done with a slightly unique style, allowing Election to stand out from the crowd, if only a little. For instance, all four of the main characters get their own voice-over narration segments. Freeze-frames are also used, not only to stop the action, but also to allow characters to talk about the other characters’ expressions during the freeze. There are also a few important flashbacks scattered throughout, and if you’re not paying at least somewhat close attention, you might get lost in the timeline. It’s always nice for a movie to force its viewers to pay attention.

I’m not sure who is supposed to be our main character, so let’s just begin with the oldest, a high school teacher named Jim (Matthew Broderick). He’s comfortable in his current position, is married, and enjoys his work. He recounts a tale in which one of his co-workers entered a relationship with a student, was subsequently fired and lost his wife. He doesn’t want to go down that road, which is apparently ever so tempting.

The student named in that story is one Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), although through her voice-over, she denies that she had any hidden motives, that she really loved this teacher. We all knew of a kid like Tracy, the one whose hand was always raised, who always had the most school spirit, who joined all the clubs, and did it all for a college application — or maybe to win mommy and daddy’s approval. She’s entering an election to become the student body president, and is currently running solo. Jim, the one who organizes the government, is afraid that Tracy will attempt to manipulate him, so he comes up with a plan of his own.

That plan involves getting the most popular guy in school, Paul (Chris Klein), to run against her. Paul’s not too sure of this idea at the beginning, but eventually warms up to it. This is the kind of person who is nice, athletic (apart from his broken leg), and genuinely sweet. His sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) also decides to run, although her reasoning for doing so is forgotten about soon enough, as is her character. It’s really a two-person race.

Everything’s building toward election day, although a surprising amount of the film takes place outside of the school, focusing on Jim and his decision to balance his romantic life between his wife and that man’s ex-wife from that earlier story, a woman he’s decided he’s infatuated with. It’s all interesting and funny, told in a way that keeps our attention, and presented with characters who all act like they’ve jumped straight out of the cartoons.

Not that this is a bad thing, mind you, as it helps make the film’s jokes work better, but it’s hard to actually imagine any of these people managing to get through up to this point with the way they are presented in the film. The only “real” character in the film is Tammy, but once her purpose is fulfilled, she’s cast-off, never to be heard from again. The rest (the self-centered manipulator, the too-nice-to-be-true guy), can’t be believed. Certain features are highlighted and exaggerated to prove a point, and I can’t say that it wasn’t effective.

The actors are also all strong, particularly Witherspoon as Tracy Flick and Broderick as the teacher. Witherspoon nails the over-the-top eagerness that is required of the part. Broderick is generally sympathetic, even when his actions don’t necessarily lean that way. Klein and Campbell, while both quite good, were overlooked more and more as the film progressed, which is unfortunate because it would have been nice to see more from them.

Not all of Election works. The parts of the film dedicated to the teacher and his home life felt off, and I wasn’t too sold on the ending. Sure, it makes sense, and it’s not exactly what you’d expect, but if the film was trying to make a point, the ending didn’t help serve this purpose. The narration was also hit-and-miss, with some of it not helping our cause at all, and most of it feeling unnecessary. There are also a couple of scenes that appear as if they’re going to build up to something (like when Tammy stares at a soccer field in disrepair), but nothing comes of them.

Election is a funny, enjoyable little movie. Is it perfect? Absolutely not, but its flaws are minor when looking at the big picture, and its cartoon characters, while certainly over-the-top, are all somehow relatable. You either were one of these people, or you knew one. It’s not a film that’s going to hurt feelings, but you’ll appreciate the commentary that goes on throughout, even if the ending doesn’t help serve its point and it could have either been expanded upon or trimmed a bit more to help remove some redundancy. Regardless, it’s a very fun movie that I have to give a recommendation.

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