Alexander Payne is an interesting director, who makes films about
interesting people. Election was one of his earlier
films (followed by critically acclaimed films like About
Schmidt and Sideways). He is always
funny, in a dark "oh my God I hope that never happens to
me" kind of way, and he loves to put disparate characters
up against each other, just to see who explodes first.
Election follows the story of Jim McAllister
(Matthew Broderick), an ordinary man living an ordinary existence.
He's a teacher in small-town Omaha, and he loves being a teacher.
The only thing that disturbs his peace is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon),
an overachieving, conniving student who is running unopposed for
student body president. The previous year Tracy had been involved
with Jim's best friend, a fellow teacher at the school. While
despising Tracy for ruining his friend's life, Jim also struggles
with his own sexual attraction to her, which threatens daily to
destabilise the fragile balance he has created in his own life.
Jim is guided by a force stronger than he is (the first of many
Freudian impulses his character suffers through) to meddle in
the election, and thus thwart Tracy any way he can. He convinces
popular student/football player Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to
run against Tracy. Paul is a good guy, one of those people who
can't even vote for himself in the election, who is at loose ends
since breaking his leg over the summer and not being able to play
football any more. He runs in the election out of a genuine feeling
of school spirit, and is so nice and naive it makes you want to
shoot spitballs at him.
Paul has a mixed-up sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell), a rebellious
free-spirit who is conveniently marked with multiple symbols of
otherness. She's attracted to girls, she's into weird music, she
smokes, she's anti-social, she's adopted. She's also sensitive
and passionate, so when her semi-girlfriend dumps her in disgust
and starts going out with her brother Paul just to get back at
her, Tammy decides to run for President. She sets herself up with
a fabulous speech as the representative of all the school's losers,
who not only don't usually get a voice in these elections, but
who think the whole thing is just stupid. The outsider becomes
the voice of reason.
As Jim interferes more and more in school politics and tensions
heighten, his life goes further and further into the toilet. One
of the cool things about Alexander Payne is that while the good
guys usually do end up doing OK, sometimes they sink horribly,
and the bad guys don't always lose. Tracy Flick, despite her lying
and scheming, comes up a winner time and time again, despite all
of Jim's efforts to bring her down. Sure she's lonely, but she
gets what she wants, one way or another.
Despite each setback, Jim continues trying to undermine Tracy's
election chances, but the more he thinks about her the more perverse
his sexual attraction to her becomes. Again, playing fast and
loose with Freud, Jim McAllister's psychosis is brought right
back to his libido. His repressed desires for Tracy act themselves
out in trying to destroy her. He imagines Tracy's face while in
bed with his wife. (I swear, if Jim's mother had been a character
they probably would have substituted her face in that sex scene
as well to drive the point home!) Her face appears in his porn.
The more Tracy gets the better of him the more helpless (re: castrated)
Jim becomes. Eventually he tries to have an affair, which backfires.
Finally he becomes a shell of himself. He loses everything that
he loves, everything that makes him who he is.
While it is primarily Jim's story, the girls are the most interesting
to watch. Tammy's rebellious glee as she's shipped off to an all-girl
boarding school is a classic moment in teen cinema. (I could only
imagine how happy I would have been if my mother had done that
for me!) Tracy the it-girl cracking bit-by-bit under the pressure
is a scream, and is a credit not only to the script but to the
comic genius of Reese Witherspoon. The great thing about her is
that she's so flexible. She can ham it up, and she can be subtle,
depending on what the scene requires. Her face can effortlessly
convey almost any emotion.
Though not as good, this pessimistic, almost nihilst teen comedy
belongs squarely in the same comedy camp as cult classics such
as Heathers. Like with that film, we're encouraged
to recognise that deep down (especially with hormone-charged teenagers,
but also with adults) all roads lead to sex. The irresistable
forces of attraction and repulsion can and do influence behaviour
and play with our minds. Tracy Flick is set up deliberately as
a sexually-charged character. Jim's actions are all about his
repressed sexuality. Paul and his girlfriend have sexual encounters,
but these are straight-forward, teenage romps that are as apple
pie as he is (no American Pie pun intended).
Tammy the outsider is constructed using her alternative/other
sexual preference as a kind of shorthand for her alienation.
Within the film there seems to be a deeper criticism of teen
films and their cavalier approach to teenage sexuality. There
is also a stated critique of democracy and the George Bush Presidential
election (Payne has cited that debacle as one of the influences
on the screenplay). When I watch it I can't help feeling that
Alexander Payne had a disturbed childhood. That, and Ferris Bueller
has grown up and is now suffering psychosexual dysfunction.
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