Simon Columb reviews Election from BFI Southbank’s Alexander Payne retrospective…
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. So the age-old saying goes. Election, Alexander Payne’s second feature, hit cinema screens in 1999 and immediately found a fan-base by deconstructing this mantra and showing it in all its school-emblem colours. Kicking off Reese Witherspoon’s career and reviving Matthew Broderick’s (with a neat play on his Ferris Bueller role from the mid-eighties – rather than a student who bunks, he’s a teacher who adores education), Election is also a triumph in combining four-narrations that equally highlight our own different attitudes towards ambition and success while portraying how they are often incompatible.
We are first introduced to keen-o student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and her teacher Mr McAllister (Matthew Broderick). Tracy is a hard-worker and ambitious student, focused on becoming school president. Mr McAllister – winner of teacher of the year three times (a school record) – on the other hand overlooks Tracy’s high-raised hand, and dislikes her approach to education. He also knows of a dark secret that Tracy is not keen to share. Mr “M” wants her crown of victory to fall and advises recently-injured sports-student Paul (Chris Klein) to run for president. Finally, we meet Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) who has revealed her love to best friend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia). Lisa rebuffs her and runs to Tammy’s brother, Paul. So Tammy runs for President too.
For the time period – and considering where Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein ended up, this could become a teenage-comedy akin to American Pie or Cruel Intentions. It could be a film that simply capitalises on awkward sex and unnecessary nudity in the context of parties, school corridors and poster-clad bedrooms. Thankfully, this is not that film. The role of Mr McAllister ensures that, though three out of four narrations are the diverse teenage stereotypes, he is equally held as a figure of ridicule – someone who has his own flaws and desires as his teenage pupils. In some respects, we gain such a deep perspective of the three teenagers that it hints at the adults they will become. Tracy Flick will become successful and remain intelligent; Paul will remain likeable and positive about his achievements; rebellious Tammy will become a role model, yet remain refreshingly honest and comfortable about who she is. Mr McAllister is already an adult; we assume he has learnt most life lessons – but we are yet to see his true feelings bubble up to the surface.
The innovative techniques to introduce character are playful and insightful. Introducing Tracy (from the perspective of Mr McAllister), it catches her in an embarrassing millisecond, hinting at a corrupted character underneath her “perfect” visage. Paul, on the other hand, is introduced when caught in his skiing accident – something foolish but brave, summarising his character entirely. All the characters are inspirational but deeply imperfect, as we all are. But Mr “M” is the man in a position of assumed responsibility; he should be the one role that lives up to his reputation. In fact, all the teachers seem to get a raw deal. Whether they are considered predatory men, old-dears or corrupted, insincere head teacher’s, none of them fit the bill. The perspective of a rebel teacher who does inspire, and lives up to the role of an educator (despite having their own cross to bear of course), could’ve made a fairer depiction of the profession. Then again, perhaps I have a bias on this one element of the story.
Fast-paced plot development means you are never bored and remain interested as to what will happen next. You never know who will win the election and a subtle insight into the votes cast by the candidates themselves hints at further thought provoking outcomes. In that manner, Election raises more questions than it answers. The questions could be as small as the influence of parents and teachers through to national Presidential elections and the purpose of democracy and politics itself. To encompass such profound points in a high-school voting-system is a testament to Payne’s deft use of camera and intelligent script-writing. Election, in 2013, stands up and holds its own next to 1999’s roll-call of outstanding films including Magnolia and American Beauty. But Election wears its heart on its sleeve and against the Academy Award candidates, it holds no sense of self-righteousness or pretention – and for a film about ethics and morals, this is a feat unto itself.
For more info on the BFI’s Alexander Payne retrospective, click here.