There was a time when the American high-school comedy was a less saturated, more introverted and most importantly self-aware affair before the days of the colourful and quirky “Superbad” and “Accepted” joined the scene; let us not forget the infamous beginning of this new genre with National Lampoon’s “Van Wilder” for a moment. But in the dying days of Generation X cinema the shadow of John Hughes’ clever storytelling, mixed in with overtly cynical direction of Alexander Payne came the ultimate form of tribute in “Election“. A film as funny as it is depressingly realistic, with a cast of perfectly tuned characters, each dangling from the precipice of social acceptance and freedom from the constraints of life.
Election follows the story of one Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a teacher working at a typically plain suburban town high-school who holds within him a deep and calculating hatred for one particular student. This student, Tracy Flick (Reece Witherspoon) is your run of the mill all out do-gooder, an exceedingly irritating book worm with a passion for everything right, prim and proper. As the plot progresses Jim finds out that the school is holding student body president elections and is terrified at the thought of Flick winning as he predicts a future life for her in US national politics (on the Republican side of course). Jim decides to coerce fellow student and high-school football champ Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy in the campaign as a means to combat her rising chances of success. What follows is a Dante-esque circus show of things taking a turn for the worse. Revelations made about each character and the ensuing aftermath turns into bitter hilarity when Jim’s actions come back to haunt him in the most ironic fashion.
The reason Election works is that it is so self-aware of its own genre. The setting of the unimaginative high-school, the cast of characters from both faculty and students are in many ways cardboard cut outs we’ve seen plenty of times before. But it is in Payne’s fast-paced and quirky direction that we can appreciate the tangled web of deception our main “hero” spins that the cast get caught up in. There is a strong feeling of imitation with the earlier and iconic John Hughes comedies of the 1980’s when you start to watch but the overall world Payne and fellow screenwriter Jim Taylor have crafted make the film seem almost timeless. The dullness of the suburbs of Nebraska work to make the overall mood one of suffocation. Each character, including a very interesting subplot revolving around Paul’s younger and lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) gives you an impression of trapped individuals, consumed by what their peers and society expects of them. It is ironic then that when Jim finally takes a chance on life he is brutally punished for his sins later on.
Director Alexander Payne would go on later to craft some of the finest comedies that American cinema produced throughout the 2000’s with such examples being “Sideways” (2004) and “About Schmidt” to name a few. But Election is certainly his most dark and twisted venture. The inner politics of high-school and personal life conflict in such a comedic manner it is hard to know what to laugh at and what to be horrified by. Rolfe Kent’s fantastic score combined with Kevin Tent’s sharp editing have led to plethora of other copies of the film’s style that seemed so typical throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Despite fellow examples such as “Cruel Intentions“, “10 Things I Hate About You” and of course the ubiquitous “American Pie” saga, Election stands out to this day as an adult, daring and inventive American comedy. It plays with its genre and combines the Ferris Bueller cast with the world of small town, forgettable America. Broderick does a stellar job as the tepid and deflated high-school teacher but the real crown must go to Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, an uptight and over zealous straight-A student that would annoy even a group of Quakers. Its cast, its tone and more importantly its lessons all fit perfectly together in Payne’s dark and ever puzzling world with an ironic streak that you’ll remember for years to come. Go see it and cast your own verdict in the ballot box!