Seeing Election was one of those rare times when I’ve gone into a movie without any real clue of what it’s about. I had been told that it is a vague allegory of the 1992 presidential election, but watching for allegorical elements in the film was pretty fruitless. Instead, what I was presented with was a quirky, entertaining, if not entirely believable portrait of a high school, complete with the archetypes of the brilliant go-getter, the affable jock, the troubled teacher and the disillusioned rebel. It all adds up to an entertaining and, well, thought-provoking, if occasionally unrealistic, film.
The majority of the story centers around Tracy Flik, a high schooler whose eyes have been on the prize since infancy. That’s not surprising, given that her paralegal mother is the type to tell Tracy, when she needs consoling after an unsuccessful speech, that she should have added the parts her mother told her to and tried a little harder. Reese Witherspoon, coming off an excellent performance in last year’s Pleasantville, finds just the right balance of relentless ambition and romantic naivete in the brilliant but lonely Tracy. The best moments are when Tracy perceives a threat, such as Chris Klein’s presidential rival Paul Metzler: Tracy’s eyes widen with anger and disbelief at the hubris of Fate, and the soundtrack screams with something reminiscent of an Amazonian war cry.
The rest of the story is given over to Matthew Broderick’s Jim McAllister, a good teacher whose unhappiness with his mediocre existence causes him to self-destruct. While McAllister starts out as a likeable character, he soon becomes mired in adulterous desires for his neighbor, and this combined with his seemingly irrational dislike of Tracy turn him into a pitiable wretch. It’s a tribute to author Jim Taylor (who wrote the novel on which the film is based) and director Alexander Payne (who also co-wrote the screenplay) that by the end of the film, the audience is more apt to identify with the lonely Tracy than the pathetic McAllister. Broderick plays the role as well as could be expected for an actor who made his name playing affable fellows like Ferris Bueller.
A few other highlights including Klein’s saintly Metzler, who couldn’t possibly be any nicer, and his sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a rebel who, in the Perot role, enters the presidential race only to drop out later.
The film does suffer from a few flaws. Anytime you have more than ten minutes of voice-over narration in a movie, you’re asking for trouble, and the device does occasionally slow down the film, or plays awkwardly in key scenes. The lesbian angle of Tammy’s character, while handled quite sensitively and realistically, seems too much of a side-plot–as does McAllister’s adulterous longings–for a single film. Finally, there’s simply no way a brainy, goody-two-shoes loner like Tracy could even have a shot at winning a high school presidential election. Like Never Been Kissed, the high school world portrayed in Election just doesn’t ring true.
But these are minor flaws in an overall entertaining film. Witherspoon’s an absolute delight, and Klein and Campbell are fun to watch. Broderick plays his character adequately, and Payne keeps the story moving fairly quickly. In the end, Election reminds us that, though following your heart always seems like the right thing to do, there are always costs.