Review/Rewind: 1999’s Election

Alexander Payne has always had a fruitful eye toward action and reaction. His characters embody a lust for what they might miss in their lives, or might be missing already. From About Schmidt to his latest project Downsizing, all of his characters find themselves at a crossroads or a sea change in their lives, afraid to take any steps in any direction.

But it surprises me how loud and long Election echoes throughout the 18 years since it was released. Who would have thought that a high school teen comedy about a student body election could send so many ripples, red flags, and warnings that we ourselves couldn’t even foresee the oncoming corruption of our own political state? The circumstances weren’t exactly paralleled, but on a recent viewing of Election after a few years had passed, I couldn’t help but make comparisons.

It all stars with Tammy Metzler’s (Jessica Campbell) speech toward the beginning of the film, screaming, “Who cares about this stupid election? If you vote for me I’ll make sure we won’t have to sit through any of these again!” As the crowd roared in excitement, it brought to mind the concept of the underdog, the outsider that wasn’t afraid to bring change and blow up the very infrastructure their education was based on for their own personal gain.

The character of Tammy didn’t exactly believe or embody these changes – she just wanted revenge against her brother who was also running for student body president. But the ideas and attitude she spurred on was a contagious one that spread through the school. (Not surprisingly, by the end of the film, with no clear majority, Tammy would have won the election had she not been expelled.)

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In contrast, when Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) gives her speech, we notice a large American flag hanging high just behind her, bringing to mind a certain presidential candidate. The flag convinces us that she embodies and believes all the values she states in her speech – a truly passionate and motivated candidate with plans and ideas, which is the total opposite of what the student body wants to see in comparison to Metzler’s speech, which did not care about the student body at all.

Another element of the film I couldn’t help but notice is the suppression of women under a male’s authority. The film bookends itself with Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) asking a class a question, with a young girl raising her hand anxious to answer, yet McAllister hesitates to call on her. Why? Is it out of annoyance? Is it a fear that he’ll be shown up and proven wrong? It’s an opening that sets the tone for the entire film, and an image that is revisited at the end with a different connotation: Is this ultimately inhibiting Tracy’s potential? By not choosing on her, is he restricting her the right to pursue a prosperous education and a potentially life changing career?

I can’t help but think about how crippled a teen’s motivation and confidence could become to be shot down like Tracy’s opportunity to be student body president. And it beckons the question: had Tracy not won, what would have become of her life? Had McAllister’s character gotten away with throwing the election, would Tracy not have assumed her full potential? Would she not have gotten into a good enough school? Would she not have been given the proper opportunities she deserved? Would she not have made it to Congress?

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The consequences introduced by the film ring true to this day. But what’s to stop it? How can change be introduced to a system that’s long been established before we could even remember? Well, like the comparison of the film’s first shot (a sprinkler watering the school’s grass) and last shot (an elementary schoolgirl raising her hand to answer McAllister’s question), it’ll start as a grass roots campaign at the lowest level, with years of progress still to be made, even if it does begin with a high school student body election.

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