By Kirby Davis, For The Miami Student
Given that there are over 64 million Netflix subscribers, and Oxford no longer has a working movie theatre, we’ll be bringing you weekly movie reviews solely about films available to stream on Netflix. Happy Netflix-ing.
At the beginning of “Election,” high school history teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) asks his class, “What’s the difference between morals and ethics anyway?”
Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is first to answer, ready with textbook definitions. This, ironically, sets up the remainder of the effortlessly hilarious film, which continually pits McAllister’s and Tracy’s morals and ethics against one another.
Tracy is an aggressively ambitious high school junior whose extracurriculars range from Yearbook and Spanish Club to carrying on an affair with McAllister’s closest friend and colleague, Dave (Mark Harelik).
The affair’s repercussions wreak havoc on Dave’s life, and student government adviser McAllister panics when Tracy suggestively points out that, should she win the election, they’ll be spending a lot of time together. McAllister recruits charmingly naïve football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to try to beat Tracy in the election.
With a vengeful agenda of her own, Paul’s sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), joins the race with a refreshingly apathetic platform. The three are forced to battle it out for student body president while McAllister does his best to manipulate the results in an absurdly misguided journey of determination and deception.
The film’s plot is the stuff of soap operas, featuring copious teenage stereotypes and extramarital affairs, but it’s also grounded in the harsh reality of high school. “Election” is painstakingly authentic, and its gritty relatability is matched by few other high school films.
Director and writer Alexander Payne opted to utilize a real high school in Omaha, Nebraska, for the film, along with legitimate high school students and teachers. It was during his search for the perfect school that he found Klein, who had never acted before.
This approach pays off, as “Election” paints an utterly convincing, albeit bleak, picture of monotonous suburban life. Each character adopts an exaggerated Midwestern accent and makes it difficult to root for just one person, as almost all of them become endearingly relatable.
This film is just as unforgiving as its primary focus — high school and high school students. It explores the cynicism and ruthlessness that such an environment can bring out in anyone, and its consequences.
“Election” is not the glamorous, dreamy picture of adolescence that most teen-based films seem to favor, and offers overtly feminist messages throughout. Witherspoon’s socially naïve but book-smart Tracy is vulnerable, like any teenage girl. But no amount of attempted sabotaging deters her from accomplishing her life goals, as she admits that, “As a woman, it’s twice as hard.”
Realistic as it is, the film is nonetheless interspersed with remarkably twisted, inadvertent fantasy sequences involving McAllister and Tracy. Witherspoon and Broderick are impeccable in their roles, and Campbell’s onscreen presence is commanding enough to distance her from the unfavorable younger sibling stereotype.
The three candidates delivering their election speeches to a packed gymnasium is a particularly memorable scene that characterizes the film.
Tracy’s is carefully planned and professional, and is met with little to no appreciation. Paul has trouble simply reading his speech, and Tammy ironically wins the most audience support by denouncing student government in general and pledging to abolish it.
The energy of the scene is palpable — the bored, restless students; Tracy’s determination; Paul’s ignorant excitement; McAllister’s desperation.
Another intimate, emotionally charged, yet still hilarious scene occurs when each character tries to get in touch with God before voting day, much like Heather Chandler’s funeral scene in 1980s classic “Heathers.”
“I know I don’t believe in you, but since I’ll be starting Catholic school soon, I thought I should at least practice,” Tammy says after Tracy’s and Paul’s earnest but shallow, selfish prayers.
It’s the film’s energy and unabashed, brutal honesty that make it worth watching. “Election” is a classic, and, as its main character serves as a role model for those pursuing careers in student government, it should be a model for all high school movies — real, hilarious and, most importantly, unforgiving.