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Election (1999)

by on 2011/09/29

“How can something that seems so true turn out to be such a lie?”

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Alexander Payne created one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen, called Citizen Ruth. While I didn’t enjoy it, I found it very effective. I count myself fortunate not to know anyone like its anti-heroine.

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for Tracy Flick, one of the leads in the political satire Election. I’ve known someone like her, more than one, in fact. You likely know one as well. I suspect everybody does.

She’s that needy striver, all aggressive positivity, whose smiles hide her uncertainty even better than the threat of aggression . . . a transparent, clumsy mercenary, preaching peace and love.

You can never be totally rid of a Tracy Flick. When — or if — she goes, another one appears. She can be young or old, male or female, imagined or all too real. Ongoing exposure to such a persona might help us to explain the compelling, persistent resonance of Payne’s Election.

Or perhaps it shows us another side of ourselves.

Based on the (excellent) novel by Tom Perotta, the action is set in and around Carver high school in Omaha, Nebraska. The core thread follows a teacher, Jim McAllister (The Freshman’s Matthew Broderick), and his struggle to suppress the overachievements of Tracy Flick (Walk the Line’s Reese Witherspoon).

Their calculated cold war gradually draws in other puppets, in particular the slow-witted sports hero Paul (Chris Klein), and his adopted counterculture sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell). The scope of their involvement is modest: a routine student election. Tracy addresses issues, Paul trades on popularity, and Tammy exploits the widespread teenage apathy. Let the zero-sum political games begin.

This movie is one reliant on the strength of its screenplay. The story and the characters are its fuel, their aspects almost completely intertwined. Don’t expect any archetypes being shuttled through conventional plot points. Nuance, depth, and balance are the stock in trade of this world.

For example, Tracy Flick is no caricature. She may be a type, but she’s nonetheless complex. Early on I thought she exemplified the phrase “Fake it ‘til you make it.” She had the fake part down, without seeming able to make it. Her high-strung nature made her more than uptight, she was dangerous, even monstrous. A spiteful, sullen histrionic, she resembles a spastic bird, one prone to hallucinations.

And yet, later on, we see her at home, and find insight into her psyche. Surrounded by motivational posters, her mother demands success, both supportive (“We’ll figure it out”) and adding more pressure (“If you’d taken my suggestions”). Suddenly the riddle of Tracy Flick may be solved, her scornful ferocity made pathetic.

With varying detail, every character is likewise yin-yanged. Jim teaches the difference between ethics and morals, ironically flawed and devolving. His friend Dave (Mark Harelik) is at first sympathetic and meek, but makes foolish, deluded decisions. Paul is good-natured, but a lost simpleton, redirected by each new conversation. Lisa has our sympathy for being unaccepted, but is driven by a flaky, needless revenge.

While each character is the hero of their own personal arc, any redeeming qualities are offset by their delusions. The production itself reinforces the effect with multiple subjective voice-overs. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of narration, which too often guides us through plot mechanics. Here, however, it expresses inner life. It adds colour in a tapestry without heavy-handed messaging per se.

Overall, Election is a showcase for its fascinating characters, fairly written, well portrayed, interesting and believable. Functionally the film holds up a mirror to ourselves, a clear reflection of an imperfect reality. It reminds us we could be as flawed as those we demonize, without precluding the hope of living well.

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Please note:

Many people — myself included — consider Election to be an unofficial follow-up to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Though a relationship between them is not necessarily explicit, or even officially acknowledged, I believe the simple act of casting Matthew Broderick has at least suggested as much.

Certain details seem to fuel the fire. Apart from their shared lead actor, I found a number of other similarities: a narrator directly addressing the audience, superfluous shower scenes, a race to beat the clock, alternate running and walking in a school hallway, the circumnavigation of a quarry’s home, the flight to a metropolis for “all that excitement and culture”, even a joke dependent on on-screen text.

Admittedly I’ve read Broderick himself denies there is any connection. Still, I can’t help feeling a rewarding sense of irony in the idea of Ferris eventually becoming like Rooney. Taking this view in no way diminishes my affection for either work. Together or apart, I have room enough in my heart for both.

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Rated R

103 minutes

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