When I brought Election back from the video store, my darling pumpkin of a wife turned her nose up and sneered at what she thought was going to be yet another teen/high school comedy packed with impossibly beautiful young actroids, cringeworthy humour and adolescent hormonal innuendo. So I watched it on my own after she’d gone to bed. And how wrong she turned out to be!
Reese Witherspoon (Pleasantville, Cruel Intentions) plays Tracy Flick, an extreme overachiever who has set her prissy little heart on becoming president of the school council. Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Freshman, Godzilla) is Jim McAllister, her civic studies teacher. A colleague and friend of his had had his career ruined by Tracey after entering into a misguided emotional affair with her. When McAllister sees that Tracy is running unopposed in the election, something in him snaps. He persuades one of his other students, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to run against her, and proceeds to do all he can to make sure that she loses.
Running alongside the core of the story are two sub-plots that add to the emotional depth and satisfaction of the film: Paul Metzler’s younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), jumps into the election race at one point as a radical abolish the council candidate. Tammy is an angry, intelligent and romantically unfortunate teen, while Paul is a star football player and (at first) the stereotypical dumb jock. With the two of them running against each other, we see a tense but ultimately very sweet brother-and-sister relationship played out.
The other sub-plot takes in the breakdown of McAllister’s marriage, and his somewhat pathetic attempt to have an affair with his ex-colleague’s wife. There is humour here, too, but of a more grown-up nature.
In amusing contrast to some of his previous roles as charismatic and slightly cheeky hero, Broderick plays McAllister as a frustrated middle-aged teacher with a mediocre marriage and a crummy car: he has become one of Ferris Bueller’s teachers. It’s a much more mature role for him, and he pulls it off very well. Reese Witherspoon is perfect as the obnoxious, spoiled Tracy Flick, and the rest of the cast put in solid character performances. Jessica Campbell is definitely a young actress to watch out for, I think.
The film is adapted for the screen (from the book by Tom Perrotta; I haven’t read it, but reviews on Amazon indicate that it’s very good) and directed with flair by Alexander Payne. Occasional freeze-frames isolate comical poses and expressions while voice-overs by the main characters give witty and concise insights into their thought processes. (A series of scenes with all of the characters praying on the night before the election is particularly funny.)
I don’t think it’s really aimed at a teen audience, but it will resonate with anyone who has been through high school. It’s like a cross between American Beauty and Heathers with a lower body count. Alternately funny, tender and cynical, it’s a sleeper classic, with a few pleasant twists at the end. It didn’t receive much attention in the cinemas, but I think it ought to down as one of the better films of the late nineties.