TBT – Election (1999)

Last Thursday I voted in the second General Election that has taken place since I’ve been of the legal age to vote. It was an election that had everyone confused until the last second. I was still umming and ahhing on my walk to my nearest voting station. I’m still not sure I made the right choice now because, in the words of Tim Minchin, “the more you know the harder you will find it to make up your mind”. Unlike my two co-workers who unquestioningly did whatever the fucking Daily Mail told them to but I’ve argued with them about it until my voice was hoarse. Suffice it to say, election fever has been rife throughout the UK for what feels like a lifetime and, despite the results being in for nearly a week, it’s not going away any time soon. So I’m jumping on the bandwagon and looking back to a political film that I only first watched because it came in a box-set with Mean Girls.

Electiontakes us to a small community in Omaha as popular High School teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), prepares to supervise the election for Student Council President. Jim is a simple man who loves his job, his wife and his students: all except the over-achieving Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) who is a constant pain in his ass. Jim has an ingrained hatred towards Tracy because she has been brought up to believe that she should do anything in her power to get what she wants, no matter who gets hurt in the long run. Like her maths teacher, and Jim’s best friend, who lost his job and family when news of his affair with Tracy became public.
Unfortunately, Tracy is the only candidate in the election, meaning that she and Jim would have to spend a shit load of time together. Understandably, Jim is eager to ensure that his time with the girl who ruined his best friend’s life doesn’t get everything she ever wanted. So he enlists the help of popular Jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to push smug Tracy off her pedestal. Paul is a dumb but incredibly well-meaning guy who Jim easily manipulates in doing his bidding.
The pair quickly become a trio when Paul’s angry younger sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) uses the election to exact revenge after being scorned by the cheerleader she was secretly hooking up with. Tammy threatens to make a mockery out of the proceedings in order to get kicked out of school and being sent to an all-girls school. I’ll just wait for my eyes to stop rolling before I continue with this. Whilst I do, let’s all take a moment to appreciate the sensitive way in which Election deals with sexual identity in young people. Insert slow clap here.
Anyway, horrible stereotyping aside, Electionprovides an often witty and shrewd satire about the world of high school politics. It deals with issues of popularity, aspirations, and morality. Alexander Payne is the kind of director who likes to satirise in equal measure and there is no side of the Election story that doesn’t become a target. All of the main players have their positives and negatives: Tracy isn’t just the obnoxious know-it-all and Jim isn’t simply the poor teacher dealing with a difficult student.
Helping dole out his satire bullets evenly, the narration is split between all four parties. Reese Witherspoon is brilliant at playing the stoic Tracy whose façade occasionally slips and shows off a delightfully violent anger. This is Witherspoon in some of best early work: Tracy is the perfect mix of demure student, sultry vixen, and aggressive opponent. As someone who has never really been a fan of the actress, this went some way towards changing my opinion.
Matthew Broderick is on equally compelling form as the crumbling Jim who finds himself on a path leading onto increasingly murky moral ground. His narration is so often caught between wonder and horror. Jim hates Tracy’s attitude and sense of self importance but at the same time he is both impressed by her and annoyed by his attraction to her. Broderick’s performance makes this balance clear and he manages to portray all of Jim’s conflicting feelings.
Electionisn’t just the story of a High School election and the complicated social structure that plays such a massive part in deciding who wins. It is about the need to get what you want and how far you are willing to go to achieve that. Both Tracy and Jim put themselves fully into their desires and we get an interesting character study amidst all of the hormones. Election is a film that is haunted by the self-serving attitude that has the risk of tearing apart a happy life.

Electionis a fun and interesting dark comedy that has a lot of confidence in the message that its trying to give out. It is not an unpleasant experience but it is definitely a more superficial film than it wanted to be. Sure the satire is there but it never really runs deep enough. It is a film that spends so long trying to reach a destination before ultimately breaking down before it gets there. The place it ends up is fine but its not what you expected when you set off. 

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