"Election"
A Film Review by Linda Lopez McAlister
on "The Women's Show"
WMNF-FM 88.5, Tampa, FL
May 8, 1999

Oh no, two high school movies in a row! I'm amazing even myself. But what pushed me over the edge was that this one, "Election" was made by Alexander Payne, the same filmmaker who made "Citizen Ruth," a film of which I'm extremely fond. Like "Citizen Ruth," "Election" is an extremely telling bit of postmodern social satire. It has an unerring instinct for finding sacred cows of whatever variety and holding them up for all to see and snicker at. There are no belly laughs here, but lots of chuckles, tinged with some sadness and misgivings. Among the targets here are high school overachievers, jocks, administrators, and teachers.

The "Election" in question is for student body president of George Washington Carver High School in Omaha, Nebraska. That's already one of writer Payne's barbed little jokes because I don't think there were any Black students at this white middle class high school. Our "hero" is Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) award-winning teacher and advisor to student government. His nemesis is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), one of those girls for whom the pursuit of perfection in every way is a passion. She's the one with her hand up first, who always knows the right answer, who is on every committee, every activity, who dresses impeccably, who's the acknowledged "Star" of the school (even though she doesn't have many friends because she's too busy being better than everybody else). My high school had one. Didn't yours? Mr. McAllister can't stand her, in part because as a junior she had an affair with another teacher who lost his job as a result and Mr. McAllister definitely does not want to have to work closely with her for the coming year lest he, too, succumb to her charms. So Mr. McAllister recruits a sweet but dumb football hero, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) sidelined with a broken leg, to run against Tracy. To make matters worse, to get back at her brother for stealing the girl that she's madly in love with, Paul's alienated lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run too. All of which infuriates Tracy and makes her determined to win by whatever means she can. Meanwhile, Mr. McAllister's personal life is getting as complicated as his work life for his efforts to help the now divorced wife of his fired colleague begin to take on a lustful tinge. That sets the scene. How the plot unfolds you'll have to see for yourself.

Seeing this film a week or so after the Littleton, CO bombing gives it added power and makes you think. Especially the election speech sequence: Tracy gives her tight, perfect little speech to polite applause. Paul reads a few cliches in a monotone and is applauded for his jock-hero status. Tammy, the unknown sophomore whom no one knows, gets up and says what most of the kids are really thinking--this is stupid, who cares who wins, it's a farce, students have no real power, nothing will change, it's only meaningful to the person who wins, and, if elected she promises to do one thing--abolish student government. Her speech brings down the house. So the apoplectic principal, rather than wondering why what she said sparked this reaction, kicks her out of school and declares her ineligible to be a candidate, proving, of course, that she was right on target. That moment rang really true. The way high school is supposed to be and the way it really is as perceived by the non stars, are worlds apart and there are lots of non stars out there. Tammy, by the way, is thrilled because now she has to go to Sacred Heart High School where she has her eye on a tall blonde field hockey player named Jennifer.

Like "Citizen Ruth," this new Alexander Payne film will make you laugh while it makes you think. That's a rare combination and I recommend that you see it. One note of caution, it has lots of sex and foul language. There was a mass exodus of disgusted senior citizens about 20 minutes into the film yesterday afternoon, so don't take your grandmother unless she's cool.

For the WMNF Women's Show, this is Linda Lopez McAlister on Women and Film.



Copyright 1999. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce this review without permission of the author: mcaliste@chuma.cas.usf.edu

Posted 5/24/99