Outside of the people who run for student government, does anyone in high school really care who gets elected class president? And yet isn't that what makes stories about student-body elections so fascinating? The stakes are so low, yet the way these kids campaign—and the reasons their classmates vote for them—says a lot about the political process and the American educational system's 12-year-long popularity contest. Caroline Suh's documentary Frontrunners follows the presidential election at Stuyvesant High, an exclusive Manhattan magnet school known for turning out future leaders. But even at this rarefied a level, the same mundane process of putting up posters and passing out flyers pertains. And even the award-winning student newspaper votes on its much-coveted candidate endorsement in the classic "heads down, raise your hand" school-kid secret ballot.
Aside from the somewhat grating blasts of indie-rock that pop up on Frontrunners' soundtrack, Suh covers Stuyvesant's race vérité-style, interspersing direct-to-the-camera interviews with fly-on-the-wall observations of the candidates and their friends. Though these kids are uncommonly driven, they still act like high-schoolers, reliably fumbling their attempts to look cool and mature when the pressure's on. One of the candidates, Hannah Freiman, is a cheerleading captain and semi-pro actor with movie and TV credits already on her résumé, yet in unguarded moments, she still chews on her ponytail and stares into space, wondering what she's gotten herself into.
For the most part, what happens in Frontrunners doesn't matter much. These are privileged teens bound for good schools no matter what happens, and they all seem mature enough to handle a loss. But what makes the movie fascinating is the particulars of the campaigns, from the way the candidates consider how to choose a running mate that will appeal to the right cliques, to the way they discuss exactly how a win would improve their chances to get into a top college. In the end, their main concern is how to be outstanding in a field overrun with bright flowers. As Hannah's mother fretfully says, "She strives to be the best, and there are so many bests at Stuyvesant."