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USA 1999
Directed by
Alexander Payne
104 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars


Although about a high school student council election, Alexander Payne’s film is not your standard teen comedy. In fact it is not so much a teen comedy but rather an cannily-told chapter of the human comedy. Co-written by Payne with Jim Taylor and based on a novel by Tom Perrotta it is distinguished by its sharp dialogue, satirical zest and its well-developed central characters played beautifully by Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.

Broderick, who made his name in one of the best-loved of those standard-setting teen comedies, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), segues perfectly to his characteristic adult persona as Jim McAllister, an earnest but rather ineffectual teacher at a high school in suburban Omaha who decides to take down little Miss Over-Achiever, Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) who is running unopposed for School President. He does so because a) she is so over-weeningly ambitious and b) she was involved in a affair with his best friend (Mark Harelik), a fellow teacher who consequently lost his job and wife as a result. Mr M sets up sports jock and popular rich kid Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against her but in a twist, Paul's lesbian adopted sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to stand as well.

Certainly the characters are staples of the teen comedy but Election is really about the adults and in particular the difficulties of navigating the interface between morality and ethics, a theme explicitly referred to a number of times. Tracy Flick, dominated by an ambitious mother, is one of those people who despite her apparent maturity never had a real childhood.  Witherspoon does a marvellous job of making her a neurotically pert, flintily-obsessive and ultimately lonely character who will eventually inflict her frustrations on the world. Unlikeable as she is her apparently nice guy opponent, Mr M. is however also morally compromised. Broderick is eminently suited to his role but all the cast, however, fulfill their parts handsomely.

Shot in a functioning high school in Payne's home state of Omaha there is a nice sense of unforced realism to the story and characters. Not well-enough known Election is a film which well exceeds its genre form.




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