Alexander Payne’s Oscar nominated Election is without contest one of the greatest high school films ever made. Hyperbole aside, the film is an unconventional mix of satirical, goofball, and sophisticated comedy that hits sharply in almost every single moment. Payne does not play favorites in the film, and nobody is presented in a light that would make them the audience’s chosen hero. The whole thing successfully twists the narrative of a conventional movie about high school by showing the action through the eyes of a teacher rather than the students.
The teacher (who also serves as the sponsor for student government) is named Jim McAllister. Played by Matthew Broderick, Mr. McAllister shines the light on one of the biggest myths of teaching. The student archetype that is most likely to drive a teacher batty has never been the troublemaker, but rather the serial overachiever. I believe we all had at least one kid who would raise his/her hand for every question no matter how many times they were passed over in favor of a lesser heard from (and often times less prepared) classmate. If you immediately remembered a name from the past that fits this mold – then you know Tracy Flick – the bane of Mr. McAllister’s existence.
Tracy, played to near perfection by Reese Witherspoon, is a neatly groomed and impossibly cheerful high school girl who sees the impending student government election as a forgone conclusion. She will be elected president because she is the only one with presidential aspirations. In one of the early scenes, she walks up to Mr. McAllister informing him that she is looking forward to the two of them having a “harmonious” working relationship once she wins the aforementioned election. Seems normal – if not cordial, right?
It would be normal if this very same student had not seduced a teacher just one year prior – getting him fired in the process. Mr. McAllister is well aware that Tracy is a dangerous overachiever and will walk on the back of anyone who gets in her way. In an attempt to keep Tracy from becoming president (or perhaps to distract himself from his own lustful urges towards her) Mr. McAllister enlists a friendly, but simple jock named Paul (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy.
Aside from truly great performances, Election is on a different level than other high school films due to Payne’s ability to adapt the source material in a way that comes off as much unbiased. Mr. McAllister is a likeable narrator, but his hyper-anxiety combined with his inappropriate feelings for/against Tracy (going as far as having a vision of his student during hate-sex) makes him something far from a hero. Tracy knows that she is cut from a superior clothe and will do whatever it takes to make it to the top. This includes bringing the people around her down – which she does at times with a girlish merriment. The only character with decent intentions is Paul the jock – which is a bit ironic considering he was dragged into this by less than decent outside forces.
All of this craziness plays out in a sardonic game of “who wants it more” between Tracy and her scornful teacher. By this time the audience has decided who they are rooting for, and in many cases it is not a unanimous choice. I believe that Alexander Payne wanted the film’s characters to be this polarizing. What better way to satirize the election process than by forcing the audience to choose between the lesser of two evils?
At the conclusion of the film we see that everyone has survived and moved on from their volatile election experience. Some good and bad things have happened to these exclusively bad people. Isn’t that life? Sometimes you have to do bad things to make good things happen. Just remember when you are voting in whatever the next election may be – that at least one of those names on the ballot is Tracy Flick.