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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Election isn’t your typical high school showdown

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: The Dark Knight takes on the Man Of Steel. Before picking sides in that title fight, check out these films about showdowns.


Election (1999)

Alexander Payne’s Election centers on a divisive student-council race between three students, meant in the original Tom Perrotta novel as a sort-of echo of the 1992 presidential race, particularly the rise and fall of that year’s third-party candidate Ross Perot. But the film doesn’t really boil down to the competition that pits striver Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) against popular doofus Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) and his wild-card sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell); from the beginning, it’s a face-off between Tracy and her teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick). The conflict starts off passive-aggressive, with Broderick’s student government advisor “Mr. M” claiming genial, student-friendly impartiality (as well as expertise in both “morals” and “ethics,” neither of which ever quite get defined in the film). But his problems with Tracy are evident from their first classroom scene, where McAllister leads his morals-versus-ethics discussion and quietly looks around for any student to call on but Tracy, whose focused, goal-oriented insistence gets under his skin.

Tracy, in turn, senses whenever an adult may be balking at her elaborate (and seemingly quite lonely) program of extracurricular activities, the centerpiece of which will be the student council presidency. She will not be denied her destiny as a future world leader, and seethes with righteous anger when McAllister convinces benched former football star Paul to oppose her in the race. His sister jumps in, delightfully, for spite. (Opening line of her stump speech: “Who cares about this stupid election?”)

Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor use unflattering freeze-frames; career-best performances from Broderick, Witherspoon, Campbell (underused since), and Klein (at the time, it seemed like Payne had discovered a terrific comic actor; his performance is that good); and a lot of voiceover to create a genuinely omnidirectional satire. They give all four major characters their own narration tracks, which eventually become vehicles for their varying degrees of self-delusion. The least delusional is probably Paul, while the most skilled at lying to himself may be Mr. McAllister, who downplays and rationalizes his own failings as he becomes more and more convinced that Tracy must be stopped.

The hostility simmering underneath their early interactions comes to a boil in a terrific scene where McAllister accuses Tracy of destroying opposing campaign signs and she fires back without blinking. But this isn’t a movie of dramatic confrontations. Ambition squares off against corrupt would-be decency, and life goes on. So many movies about high school pit groups against other groups: jocks against nerds, mean girls against the unpopular, students against unfeeling teachers. In Election, the showdown between McAllister and Flick resonates because both characters feel so utterly alone—before and after.

Availability: Election is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital outlets.