“Election” will screen at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St., at 7 p.m. Monday Nov. 7. Here’s our review of the film, which was originally published on April 30, 1999.
As “Election” begins, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is preparing to run for student council president unopposed. Who would dare run against her? Bright-eyed, chipmunk-cheerful and obsessive, Tracy is as much a staple of high school life as pep rallies and detentions: The teenage overachiever. Tracy is the girl with the most entries behind her name in the yearbook index. She's a Future Business Leader and a member of the drama club (she's proud to have played Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof). She's an on-air reporter at the school's TV station, and she volunteers for every committee she can — as long as she can lead it. "Some people say I'm an overachiever, but I think they're just jealous, " Tracy likes to say. "My mom always told me the weak will be jealous of the strong."
Despite her self-obsessed nature, Tracy's love for her school is genuine. But there's something about her that bothers social studies teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Maybe it's the way in which she is always the first one to raise her hand in class (and always gets the answer right.) Or maybe it's the way she dots her "i"s with an annoying little star. Or maybe it's because, as “Election” reveals in its first 10 minutes, Tracy is not the innocent little angel she seems to be.
For whatever reason, Mr. M — as he's affectionately called by his students — decides the girl must be stopped. On a whim of apocalyptic consequences, he convinces the school's popular football hero, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), to enter the race, and the ensuing ripple effect changes the lives of everyone involved.
Using high school as a microcosm for the real world — a place of rules, hierarchies, competition and string-pulling — “Election” becomes an outrageously funny satire about the need-to-succeed drive that is so ingrained in our culture. Though the movie gets all the details right (the officious principal, the dull assemblies, the janitor who silently holds a grudge forever), director Alexander Payne is less interested in recreating the high school experience than he is in exploring how too much ambition can lead to ruinous consequences.
What makes the movie so wickedly subversive (aside from some moments of shockingly blue humor) is its profound morality. Most viewers will immediately side with Mr. M as he sets out to muck up Tracy's plans, because we've all known someone like her, and who hasn't secretly wanted, at some point or another, to see a goody-goody fall flat on his or her face?
But Payne’s characters aren't as cartoonish as they initially seem. The blond, blue-eyed Tracy (played to perfection by Witherspoon) can go from eager Girl Scout to mean junkyard dog the moment anyone dares challenge her. Her righteousness, which she believes she's earned through hard work, knows no bounds (she prays to God to let her win the election, because she deserves it and Paul doesn't.) But the movie never treats her as anything less than human, and when she cries, her tears carry a powerful sting. She wants to win, more than anything else, because she's been taught that is what she must do.
In an inspired bit of casting, Broderick plays Mr. M as an instantly likable, frumpy teacher who believes he's making a difference in his students' lives. It's only as Payne begins to wreak karmic retribution on him that we begin to realize Mr. M, like Tracy, may not be the person we thought he was (a subplot involving his attempts at an extramarital affair is one of the most hilarious, and painful, depictions of infidelity ever put on film.)
Nothing in “Election” goes quite the way you'd expect: The movie is constantly surprising you. Payne jumps around to tell the story from several different points of view, including Paul's rebellious younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who tells us "It's not like I'm a lesbian or anything. It's just that all the people I've been attracted to just happened to be girls."
It's telling that Tammy ultimately emerges as the most sympathetic character in “Election.” Unlike her brother, she's a free thinker, and though she's just as self-obsessed as everyone else, at least she's out to make herself happy without stepping on anyone. Her carefree honesty and refusal to sell her soul to the rat race is what “Election” subtly celebrates the most. It's a wonderfully rich, complex movie, and funnier than anything I've seen in years. Don't miss it.
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell, Mark Harelik, Molly Hagan. .
Director: Alexander Payne.
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor. Based on the novel by Tom Perrota.
A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 103 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual content, adult themes. Plays at 7 p.m. Monday Nov. 7 at O Cinema Miami Beach.