election

1999

Written and Directed: Alexander Payne (from the Tom Perrotta novel)

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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