High school sucks. While this is currently a headlines-worthy observation, movies about high school have been underscoring it for years. From Blackboard Jungle, Carrie, Jawbreaker, and Heathers, to Cooley High, Scream, The Ice Storm, and Never Been Kissed, the point is the same: in high school, you spend way too much time worrying about cliques, grades, popularity, and sex. Even when you resist, you’re responding to the rule. While no one would or could take credit for the ingenious oppressiveness of high school, it’s clear that its rituals of abuse and anxiety go way back. You’d think someone in charge would try to improve things, remembering early days of torture. But no. The high school persists, defined by its many small distresses and torments, its awesome unfairness and ugliness.
Alexander Payne’s Election makes this pattern fiercely clear. It also delineates the investments that adults have in it, showing by way of wicked good comedy, how high school is not an end to anything, not a phase to be endured or forgotten, but a training ground for adulthood. What’s most unnerving and rewarding about the film is its dead-on mirroring of adult and teenage machinations. It pits aspiring senior class president Tracy Flick (the resplendent Reese Witherspoon) against civics teacher and student-government faculty advisor Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick, in his most perfectly realized performance since Ferris Bueller), both equally determined to win their frantically escalating battle of wills and wits.
At first, Tracy seems the ideal high school student. Resourceful, pretty, and relentless, she’s an overachieving darling in front of authorities (or rather, those who imagine themselves to be so). A big fish in the small pond of her Omaha high school, Tracy works too hard at everything. She makes her own campaign buttons, posters, and “Pick Flick” cupcakes, focusing her supercharged energies on winning. Initially, the irony is that she can’t help but win, as she’s running unopposed. Who would run against her? She’s the girl everyone admires and despises, the model student and scary Heather (without a clique, because she’s far too self-involved), the delectable Lolita and the don’t-fuck-with-me chick whose divorced, hard-working paralegal of a mother (Colleen Camp, who once sang “Suzy Q” in Apocalypse Now) has raised her to think the world owes her.
Like Payne’s first film (that brilliant breakdown of polarizing abortion politics, Citizen Ruth), Election offers multiple perspectives, less interested in clear distinctions between right and wrong than in challenging the idea that such distinctions exist, unchanging and absolute. The script, by Payne and Jim Taylor, achieves this equanimity by giving several characters voice-overs. We’re introduced to Tracy by Jim, whose narration includes dry observation and a freeze frame or two of her face twisted in mid-smirk, to underscore his particular distaste for her. He explains his reaction by telling us, with some warped zeal, that she once had an affair with a colleague (Mark Harelik), who was subsequently forced to leave his wife, children, and town. Now, he believes, Tracy must learn the important lesson that she can’t always win. And he believes he must be her teacher. In other words, he wants revenge.
And so, McAllister contrives to run another student against Tracy, the enormously popular, sweet, and clueless quarterback Paul Metzler (Chris Klein). Paul hardly knows what to do when Tracy confronts him about his campaign, and rather sheepishly wishes her good luck, meaning it. Events snowball, and soon Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), angry that her brother has apparently stolen her girlfriend, decides to run in the election as well (that the film makes no big deal of this incipient lesbian relationship is to its credit). When it comes time to make speeches in the gym, the three candidates square off: Tracy fastidiously lists her goals and achievements; Paul, in a full leg cast following a football accident, plays on his classmates’ sympathy; but Tammy brings down the house when she asks, microphone feed-backing, “Who cares about this stupid election?!” When she promises that, if elected, she will abolish the whole business forever, the appreciative stomping and hooting are deafening. The camera shows her standing awkwardly at the mike while the adults seated behind her shudder visibly: this is democracy run amok.
This is also Election‘s finest insight, that high school as an idea if not in every act and instance is designed and regulated by conventional, well-intentioned adults who fear change and who can’t afford to see that their antiquated customs like school elections have precious little to do with their students’ experiences. Order, familiarity, and repetition take precedence over mobility and inspiration. Ironically, in this context, Tracy is both the exemplary and the least-likely-to-exist high school student. For all Jim’s antipathy toward her, she’s the only high schooler in sight who actually wants to play by the grown-ups’ rules, to win the same accolades and reaffirm the same values to which her elders at least pay lip service.
Jim’s values and sense of self undergo profound alterations as a result of his difficulties with Tracy. Wanting so badly to order and control his world (as evidenced by his efforts to defeat Tracy with his own candidate), he’s left to confront chaos. While the film shows Tracy’s moral transgressions (mostly from Jim’s perspective), she doesn’t quite pay for them as she would in a more regular narrative. Instead, she only seems slightly menacing, in a hyper-clean-and-neat, Donna-Reedish kind of way: she’s the throwback that most of today’s high schools (so fretful that they’re making monsters) say they want to produce, charming, well-behaved, insidious. She’s better at behaving like the ideal girl than you could imagine being. No wonder Jim’s best friend Dave falls so hard for her: she’s the high school babe, Britney Spears in Omaha, hot and naive at the same time, easily impressed by guys who can play guitars or speak more than two sentences at once.
And in the end, it’s not her fault that she’s annoying or aggressive, demanding that God answer her prayers or that these ungrateful students vote for her. Rather, Tracy’s the consummate high school superstar, destined to go on to a career in national politics. She’s the model citizen, having learned well that winning is the most important thing. This makes her alarming, too, as the film underlines with its use of the “Navajo Joe Main Title Theme” (which the composer Ennio Morricone wrote for a 1966 spaghetti Western), whenever Tracy’s passions overwhelm her: the soundtrack screams, Tracy’s eyes narrow, and she’s off, to do whatever dastardly and imperative deed she sees before her.
In the face of this human storm, Jim must relearn a crucial lesson, that he’s also been trained to win at most any cost. He slowly and hilariously comes undone in his own petty pursuit of happiness. The film offers enough of Jim’s perspective as he ogles his newly single neighbor Linda’s ass or lucious lips, and tells himself that she wants him as much as he needs her (a sign of his own self-assertion more than his desire or self-awareness) that, ironically, you have trouble sympathizing with him, despite the overwhelming evidence he seems to think he has against his mortally perky enemy. With more to lose and less imagination than the tireless Tracy, Jim is finally unable to control events, despite his enormous sense of dedication or increasing sense of desperation. When he spots her one day in Washington DC, long after high school is over for both of them, Jim can’t refrain from engaging in a very adolescent act of vengeance, throwing his milkshake after the Nebraska Representative’s car in which Tracy is riding (she appears to be some kind of aide, still on her way up the political ladder she began to ascend years back). High school, Election reminds you, sets the rules, rules that you will never escape. The system always wins.