Director Alexander Payne revels in the mundane. Many of his films are about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but a worthwhile story is often buried in those lives, resulting in a cinematic experience that can be equal parts dark, hilarious, and cringe-worthy.
Election, Payne’s second film, faithfully follows this template, and while it wasn’t a huge commercial success upon its initial release in 1999, it helped get him noticed among critics and audiences, and over the years the film has held up well and become something of a cult classic.
Like many of Payne’s films,
Election is set in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, and centers around a perky, obsessed, overachieving senior by the name of Tracy Flick (played by Reese Witherspoon in an early, career-high performance). One of the school’s most respected teachers, Jim McAllister (played to rumpled perfection by Matthew Broderick) is a calm yet enthusiastic presence at the school and provides an interesting counterpoint to Tracy’s constant mania and almost psychotic drive. Tracy is running for student body president, which seems like a no-brainer, but her sexual relationship with one of her teachers (who happens to be a close friend of Jim’s) gets the teacher fired. This rubs Jim the wrong way. He refuses to let Tracy succeed.
As a result, Jim decides to shake things up by convincing the polite, dim school jock Paul Metzler (played by Omaha native Chris Klein in his debut film role) to run against Tracy. Throwing another wrench in the works, Paul’s sister Tammy – a lesbian sophomore whose girlfriend left her for Paul – decides to throw her hat into the ring as well, initially doing it as revenge against her brother. She becomes a surprisingly popular candidate, thanks to a refreshingly honest campaign speech (“Who cares about this school election?” she asks indifferently, and a school assembly full of stoners and slackers roar their approval). As if that weren’t enough conflict, Jim and his wife are trying unsuccessfully to have a baby. Jim engages in an ultimately disastrous extramarital affair, his face is temporarily disfigured by a doozy of a bee sting (in one of the film’s more symbolic moments) and he ultimately decides to sabotage the school election.
Adapted from a then-unpublished novel by Tom Perrotta (
Little Children, The Leftovers), Election succeeds on a number of levels. Much of this has to do with the unique choices that were made. For one thing, voiceovers are provided by not one, but four of the film’s main characters: Tracy, Jim, Paul, and Tammy. Getting into each of these individuals’ heads provides a satisfying, novelistic approach to the story. The use of a real high school and populating it with its actual students as extras (and in several cases, speaking parts) gives the film a heightened sense of realism. There are also interesting touches like a specific musical theme attached to Tracy’s character: whenever she gets particularly angry (for instance, when she finds out that Paul is running against her for president), Ennio Morricone’s dissonant, screaming soundtrack from the spaghetti western Navajo Joe plays, which is both unsettling and highly entertaining.
Location also gives the film a realistic edge. Payne knows Omaha, and while you don’t see a lot of exterior shots of notable Nebraska landmarks, the plain suburban vista is somewhat of a refreshing change of pace. This isn’t Hollywood, it isn’t New York City, and it isn’t even the upper-class Chicago suburbs of privilege you see in so many John Hughes teen comedies. Payne practically uses the drabness as its own character. He also infuses the film with a sense of deadpan that’s become something of a stock-in-trade in so much of his later work. The lack of emotion and seriousness with which some of his characters behave is surprisingly amusing. It’s like Wes Anderson without the twee set designs and world-building.
The casting of Election is brilliant, particularly among the principal characters. At the time, Witherspoon was an up-and-coming young actress earning positive reviews for her performances in films like Pleasantville and the Paul Newman thriller Twilight, and although she was already in her early ’20s when shooting took place for Election, her youthful exuberance allows her to nail the part of a teenager. She allows the role of Tracy Flick with much more nuanced than your typical take-no-prisoners overachiever – there’s sorrow and vulnerability buried beneath that effervescent exterior, as she talks about her single mother. She’s clearly a high school student with few to no friends. Even in her more vicious moments, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sorry for her.
The decision to cast Broderick and the beleaguered Jim McAllister was a stroke of genius. Payne balked at the studio’s suggestion to cast an A-list heartthrob like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, choosing instead for the affable, regular-guy Broderick. He perfectly captures the dull ennui of a Midwestern schoolteacher who enjoys his job (“Teaching was all I ever wanted to do!” he enthuses in the voiceover) but is often bored with his lot in life, as evidenced by the rudimentary lovemaking he performs in order to impregnate his wife or the depressing VHS porn he dully watches in his basement. When he hits rock-bottom, his frustration is reminiscent of William H. Macy’s performance of Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo – a sad sack who can’t get out of the hole he’s dug himself. It’s interesting to note that Election was one of the first films to signify Broderick’s transition from teen roles to adult ones. The transformation from fresh-faced teen characters in films like War Games, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Biloxi Blues to a middle-aged cog in Election would normally seem jarring if Broderick’s skills weren’t so sharp and natural.
The discovery of local actor Klein to play the popular, likable Paul is something of a revelation, and it’s surprising that it’s Klein’s first film role, as he plays the part with complete ease, channeling a young Keanu Reeves. As the rebellious Tammy, Jessica Campbell was a last-minute replacement for the better-known Thora Birch (
Hocus Pocus, Now and Then), but her portrayal as the sexually curious outcast is winning and completely believable.
As usual with Criterion reissues, there are some nice extras included in this set, although it’s not overly generous. A scene-specific commentary track from Payne (recorded in 1999) is entertaining and informative. A 2017 interview with Witherspoon is worth checking out, as she speaks fondly of her work on the film and points out that people approach her “weekly” about her performance as Tracy Flick. A 2016 documentary about the making of the film is a must for fans, featuring behind-the-scenes footage and current interviews with Payne and most of the cast. There’s also a brief 1997 local Omaha TV news story about the film shoot, as well as an essay in the booklet by Slate film critic Dana Stevens called “That’s Why It’s Destiny.” Finally, if you want to see where Payne’s cinematic head was at in 1990, his UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, is included here as well. The short film certainly has an experimental bent, and while it’s an admirable work for a film student, it feels dated and awkward – much like anyone’s college work may feel after more than 25 years.
Despite rave reviews, Election didn’t do well at the box office, but it signaled the beginning of Payne’s awards streak, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Witherspoon in the Best Actress category, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film in 1999. Subsequent films by Payne, including About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants have received their fair share of award nominations as well. While his film budgets have increased and his cachet in the film industry has grown, the films of Alexander Payne always seem to include many shared themes: loneliness, the occasionally maddening routine of everyday life, and bad people getting away with doing bad things. These topics may not always be sexy, but in Payne’s world, they make for rich storytelling. Election serves as the perfect example of this.