Election

Smart is not a word you'd use to describe most of the high school flicks now cluttering the multiplex. Election is a refreshing change. Director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne - who took on abortion in his 1996 debut feature, Citizen Ruth - doesn't care who goes to the prom at George Washington Carver High. It's the race for student-body president that rivets Payne, who shot this adaptation of Tom Perrotta's novel on location in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, where things only seem quiet.

Note the raging ambition behind the fake smile on Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), the overachieving suck-up who's running for president unopposed. Tracy irritates the hell out of Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a much-favored teacher whose wife doesn't know about the porn films he stashes away at home. To quash Tracy, Jim persuades Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a dumb but popular football jock, to enter the race. And wait - another candidate emerges: Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell), Paul's lesbian sister. Tammy is so pissed that her lover, Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia), has started giving Paul blow jobs that she sets up a third party dedicated to overthrowing student government.

In short, it's a death match. Payne skewers hypocrisy on all sides of the political spectrum as he parodies the 1992 presidential race, with Ross Perot as the spoiler, and places the roots of corruption right in the classroom. Despite lapses in energy and tone, Election is a moral fable with rare comic bite. Broderick excels as a role model who is not above a quick fix. And Witherspoon, her jaw set like a junior Ken Starr, makes Tracy a hilarious hellcat ready to clean up everyone's ethical ills but her own. As he did with Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth, Payne brings out unexpected fire and wit in Witherspoon, whose memorable portrait of young democracy on the march is the stuff of laughs and lasting nightmares.

From The Archives Issue 812: May 13, 1999