Director: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Delaney Driscoll, Chris Klein, Frankie Ingrassia, Jessica Campbell
Review: Released to little fanfare in 1999, “Election” was considered upon it’s release a box office failure and like its fellow Indie comedy classic “Clerks” only really found its audience when it was later released on VHS / DVD. Still despite being ranked at #61 on Bravo’s 100 funniest movies, it remains something of an indie obscurity with few folks seemingly heard of it let alone seen it, while Director Alexander Payne would later go onto both critical and commercial success with his follow up films “About Schmidt”, the dinner party favourite “Sideways” and the recent Oscar nominated “The Descendents”
Based on the Tom Perrotta novel of the same name released a year before the film, it is the story of high school teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick) who secretly is plotting his revenge against the overachieving and highly vindictive Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), a student who had earlier in the school year engaged in an affair with Jim’s best friend and fellow teacher Dave, which resulted in him being fired and later divorced by his wife Linda (Driscoll) while Tracy walked away from the scandal free of any form of reprisal or punishment. Now having set her sights on becoming student body president, Jim finally spots his chance for revenge, especially with Tracey being set to run unopposed, something he is quick to put an end to by introducing his own candidate by encouraging Paul Metzler (Klein) a popular football player currently sitting out the season due to breaking his leg to run for election, something which Paul surprisingly finds new purpose from.
Unwittingly though Paul has also recently stolen his sister’s girlfriend Lisa (Ingrassia), after she decided that she was just experimenting and not actually gay. In response to this rejection Tammy (Campbell) decides to run for the presidency, determined to get her revenge against her brother and Lisa, while also gaining the anarchy vote for promising to dissolve the student government if she wins and so the race to become student president begins, though with so many personal agenda’s it’s going to be anything but a clean fight.
More than happy to play around with the traditional high school conventions, Payne here crafts a darkly comic film, with nearly all of the characters playing against type, hence Overachiever Tracy is more than willing to do whatever it takes to win the election, frequently coming off like Rachel from “Glee” on crack! A hideously smug creation Witherspoon is perfectly cast to play, as she has a sweet and innocent look yet has the ability to switch styles instantly to show her darker side as soon as things stop going Tracey’s way, while seemingly armed with a endless supply of plots and schemes to ensure she wins the election from baking 480 customised cupcakes to tearing down her opponents posters in frenzied meltdown.
Meanwhile the traditionally loudmouth Jock, represented here by Paul is a much more thoughtful and even philosophical character, yet at time painfully naïve about what is happening around him, especially when it comes to unwittingly stealing his sisters girlfriend and never actually realizes that Lisa is purely using him to spite his sisters advances. Tammy continues what would seem to be a family trait for being philosophical and while she represents the outsiders, her personal musings on the world around her and her sexuality frequently providing the moments of indie cool and only further helping to separate this film from other high school films.
Constantly switching between the four main characters, with heavy use of voice overs, Payne truly gets inside the heads of both the candidates as well as Jim whose life is none the less chaotic outside of his vendetta against Tracy, as he harbours feelings for his best friend’s ex-wife with who a potential liaison in a motel, which also starts a downward spiral in his luck when all he receives is a bee sting to the eye, while his plans to swing the outcome of the election and their gradual unravelling only adds to the black humour, as Broderick still manages to charm the audience as the nice guy trying to play it bad, even as his choices only grown increasingly morally dubious, as you question just how low he will sink before he truly hits rock bottom.
Despite seemingly have assembled an all star cast, it is really down to pure good luck on the part of Director Payne that history has seen his cast’s careers for the most part continue to rise, especially as upon it’s release only Broderick was a big name on the cast, with Witherspoon still yet to become America’s sweetheart, despite coming to the forefront of the public conscious the same year when she also appeared in “Cruel Intentions” meanwhile Klein would become more notable for his appearance in “American Pie” again released the same year as this film, only to soon disappear just as quickly as he had burst onto the scene. The most frustrating piece of casting though would be with Thora Birch, who was originally cast as Tammy only to sadly be replaced by Campbell on the forth day of shooting, following creative differences between herself and Payne, still despite being the second choice Campbell still makes the role her own and only makes it more of a shame that she only had a handful of roles after appearing here.
Seeing how it was released during a golden year for cinema, it’s not too surprising that this film got so overlooked on it’s original release, especially with 1999 being the year that saw the releases of The Matrix, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, Cruel Intentions and err…. The Boondock Saints. Perhaps if it hadn’t been for the original “American Pie” also being released the same year this would have been the high school movie of choice, but still despite this it is still a darkly comic tale of high school life, while providing some of the cast such as Broderick and Witherspoon to play against type. Needless to say this is one vision of high school which rings more than a little true, without feeling the need to resort to fantasy Esq. Visions of what Hollywood perceives High school life to be like and makes an especially refreshing change to what the Disney machine would have us believe High school to be like, while also reminding us that corruption in politics clearly exists at any level.