Election (1999)

Teen cinema is full of here-today, gone-five-minutes-from-now stars — today’s Hilary Duff is tomorrow’s Dana Plato — but Reese Witherspoon is the real thing. She is the oddest young actress: a perky lioness who can shift from a sunny grin to a squinched-up pout of disgust in a millisecond. In movies like Freeway, Pleasantville, and the biting new satire Election, Witherspoon sometimes seems like the only fully alive person on the screen — if only because she has so much more energy than her costars — and sometimes that energy lashes out and zaps people. This lioness can be red in tooth and claw.

Election, the second feature by director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (their previous collaboration was 1996’s Citizen Ruth), finds Witherspoon sharpening her fangs on her hapless classmates and teachers at George Washington Carver High in Omaha. She’s Tracy Flick (the surname spelled in caps on a poster sometimes comes prankishly close to obscenity), a true renaissance girl who throws herself into every possible extracurricular activity. Tracy knows that women must work twice as hard for success, so she’s starting early. In fact, when it comes time to begin her candidacy for Student Council President, she has her table set up, her sign-up pads neatly arranged, long before the first bell of the school day. And God himself couldn’t help anyone who gets in her way.

Watching the brash, confident, resourceful Tracy, we might wonder how she’d get along with a brash, confident, resourceful teen of a decade ago — Ferris Bueller. As it happens, we don’t have to wonder: Matthew Broderick, with some meat around the middle and some gray in his temples, is Jim McAllister, a well-respected history teacher at Carver High. Ferris was a different prodigy than Tracy — he was more of a goof-off, using his wits and energy to get out of school. Jim could almost be Ferris ten years later, settled into a stable job, an unsurprising life. The answer to our question is, Ferris and Tracy wouldn’t get along, and neither do Tracy and Jim; Jim sees Tracy as a ruthless climber, and he tosses a few roadblocks in her path, including a likable but dim jock (Chris Klein) and the jock’s nihilistic lesbian sister (Jessica Campbell), both of whom run against Tracy.

It’s said that the rest of life is high school, only more so; Payne and Taylor invert the equation here, treating the power plays and snubs and naked competition of high school as a microcosm for American politics (with a little economics tossed in). The script, based on a Tom Perrotta novel, is tight and elegant; Payne’s neutral eye, which he turned so effectively onto pro-choicers and pro-lifers in Citizen Ruth, stares just as unblinkingly at the fallible students and teachers brought low by their own unattainable desires. Everyone, that is, except Tracy; for her, no desire is unattainable, provided you get up early enough and press enough flesh.

Tracy seems almost like an alien, but then so do Anthony Robbins or Stephen Covey or your choice of personal-improvement gurus. One can picture her ten years from now, tossing off a bestseller explaining how to achieve your dreams, using the banal language of optimism and self-realization to smother the cries of those she’s destroyed on the way up. The brilliance of Election, and of Reese Witherspoon’s performance, is that we also see the human being inside all that manipulation and muck. When Tracy thinks she’s defeated, her despair is nearly Homeric; she bawls like the little girl she never really got a chance to be, and our hearts go out to her in spite of ourselves. But the movie isn’t over yet, and there are more twists in store. Alexander Payne catches us feeling sorry for these characters — Tracy in her time of agony, the hapless Jim, the miserable lesbian outcast, the aw-shucks jock — and then turns the tables on us. Nobody in Election is as bad as they seem; nobody is as good as they seem, either.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, comedy, one of the year's best, satire

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