WFTB Score: 14/20
The plot: Perky presidential wannabe Tracy Flick has her campaign upset by teacher Jim McAllister, who has personal and philosophical reasons for believing she should not be elected without a fight. As the campaign gets nastier, Mr M adds complications to his own life that affect his judgement come polling day.
Although most of its action takes place in a high school, Election is far from your typical high school movie; anyone expecting proms, sex and beer-fuelled mayhem is going to be disappointed. For Election is a far more biting, satirical piece, concentrating on the animosity that arises between Mr M, the teacher (Matthew Broderick) and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), his over-achieving pupil.
Tracy is a girl who puts her hand up in class to answer everything, and gets on committees to run everything, and anyone who has spent any time in school will instantly recognise the personality type. Mr M knows about an affair that took place between Tracy and his disgraced teacher friend Dave, so dreads the thought that if Tracy wins he would be spending a lot of time with her. Considering that every Coke should have its Pepsi, he persuades the local jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) – popular, rich and slow on the uptake – to run for president, a move that attracts Tracy’s fury.
Additional complications arise when Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), heartbroken when experimental girlfriend Lucy dumps her and shacks up with her brother, decides to run for president herself and delivers a barnstorming speech rousing the truly popular ‘Who cares?’ vote. On top of all this, Jim, tired of functional, baby-making sex with his wife, makes a play for Dave’s ex Linda.
As you can see, it’s a pretty complicated picture, but Payne tells it in forthright, uncompromising fashion, using a multiple narrative technique which lets Mr M and the three presidential candidates speak their own minds throughout the film (I do not know if this is copied from Tom Perrotta’s novel). Two performances stand out: Witherspoon is excellent as Tracy, a proto-adult who occasionally gives in to childish explosions of rage, joy or grief; she holds the film together, letting us know exactly what a struggle it is for her to be so outwardly robotic.
The other strong performance comes from Jessica Campbell, whose burgeoning lesbianism and sense of proportion about the election offer a refreshing alternative perspective, which is of course seen as subversive by those in authority. Out of all the protagonists’ outcomes, it is Tammy we feel most pleased for as she ends up in a Catholic girls’ school.
There are bound to be those uncomfortable with the subject of Dave and Tracy’s teacher/student relationship, especially considering his vulgar way of speaking about her. In the film’s defence, it happens! It also emphasises a theme, seemingly prevalent in Payne’s films, that men are weak creatures who will do anything for the promise of sex. This may be unfair, but Dave and Mr M put up a convincing case for the prosecution. There are also a few coarse moments, such as during the candidates’ prayers, but they come out of the blue and have an amusing shock value.
Elsewhere, the humour is more subtle and one of the best jokes is tossed away almost completely – recounting the ballots, the head teacher finds that Paul has won, due to Mr M’s interference (Paul would have won anyway if he hadn’t been super-nice and voted for Tracy out of modesty); during the arguments that ensue, it emerges that there were far more votes discarded, attributed (fleetingly) to ‘Tammy fans.’ It’s a hollow victory for whoever wins!
In general, Election struggles to keep up momentum in the same way Payne’s later film Sideways does; Jim’s brief affair with Linda slows the story down and his grotesque bee sting injury fails to add much besides visual humour – unless it’s to emphasise that he becomes increasingly one-eyed in his judgement. The film’s best moments are in the first half and the conclusion, whilst fitting, includes some fairly heavy-handed satire as we catch up with Jim in New York.
Still, it is only right that morals and ethics catch up with him in the end, and – in another satirical dig – that Tracy gets away with her lies and ends up working in Washington (for the Republicans, although I’m sure that has nothing to do with anything). With some great acting and brilliant lines, Election gets my vote. It’s not cosy, it’s definitely not for the Get Over It/She’s All That crowd, but it is often very, very funny.