The Best Movie You Never Saw: Election
Welcome to The Best Movie You Never Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.
This week we’ll be examining ELECTION from writer/director Alexander Payne.
A high school teacher's personal life becomes complicated as he works with students during the school elections.
Writer/Director Alexander Payne (THE DESCENDANTS, SIDEWAYS) has a diverse cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Colleen Camp, Phil Reeves, Molly Hagen, and Jessica Campbell. It is also the film debut of Chris Klein. Payne wrote the script with regular collaborator Jim Taylor, which is based on the novel by author Tom Perrotta (LITTLE CHILDREN, The Leftovers).
Author Tom Perrotta originally conceived of ELECTION as an allegorical tale about the 1992 Presidential election, as well as an incident at a high school where a pregnant girl won homecoming queen, only to have the ballots burned to make it seem that she didn’t. Payne optioned the book shortly after its publication and found support in MTV films, who were looking for some edgy teenage material to kickstart their venture. If only they really knew the kind of material they were covering.
After some casting shuffles, Payne secured Broderick and Witherspoon as his leads, while snagging Chris Klein during location scouting in Omaha, Nebraska, where the film was shot. Klein was a student at the time and left an impression on Payne (also from Omaha), who ultimately gave the young actor his first big break. Thora Birch (AMERICAN BEAUTY) was originally cast as Tammy Metzler (Klein’s sister in the film) but left early on, stating creative differences with the director. This prompted the hiring of Jessica Campbell in the role.
The film was shot on location in Omaha, utilizing an actual high school in the area. They filmed while classes were actually in session, which lends greatly to the atmosphere of the overall film.
ELECTION debuted on May 7, 1999 to a rather abysmal box office, making a total domestic cume of $14 million from a $25 million budget. Critics mostly loved the film, but nobody went to see it, primarily because it was marketed as something much lighter than it actually was. The trailer is so off the mark of what the film is that you have to wonder if the marketing team knew anything about the film or just saw a few scenes and had to make it work.
Since its debut, the film has gained solid cult notoriety and appears on many best of lists, but still remains a film largely unseen and misunderstood.
"The truth is, though, that Matthew Broderick was in a career lull at the time, Reese Witherspoon had never had a hit movie, and although the film was a critical success, it was box-office death. No one ever did an R-rated teen flick again." – Tom Perrotta
WHY IT’S GREAT:
I see ELECTION as one of those great movies that everyone knows they should see and always mean to “get to it,” but rarely do. I wish I had an actual count of the number of times I’ve made a reference to it only to be met with a blank stare, followed by “You’ve never seen ELECTION??” In fact, I think this bodes similarly for many of Alexander Payne’s movies, including ABOUT SCHMIDT, CITIZEN RUTH, and even the Oscar-winning SIDEWAYS. Payne is one of the smartest filmmakers working and puts together films of intricate, real-world oddities that are savagely good at making you feel uncomfortable in a great way.
ELECTION, like all of Payne’s films, has a unique set of characters, each with quirks, idioms, and attributes that make them stand out (and apart) from one another. Although the film is satirical to an extent, it’s no less engaging in terms of creating a world you have likely lived in. There’s no glamour or pizzazz. Payne’s style is all about painting a portrait of every day people and life, but within the confines of both the best and worst moments of their lives. It’s a beautiful show to watch his characters squirm and ELECTION has plenty of those moments.
“I liked it not because I read it and saw a satire, but because I read it and thought, look at these interesting people doing these really pathetic and hilarious things. (It was) just the human landscape. I mean, I don't really look at the film as being necessarily satirical. That's something other people have called it. I just see it as this human landscape.” – Alexander Payne
It’s a simple tale, really, that follows an obnoxious and ambitious girl named Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) as she runs for class president with fierce tenacity against her reluctant opposition, a good-guy jock named Paul Metzler (Klein), who is encouraged to run by Mr. McAllister (Broderick), a seemingly good-natured teacher who wants to see Tracy’s wide-eyed dreams of a landslide perfect election go down in flames.
Most people that have seen ELECTION tend to say that Witherspoon is the star and that it’s her best performance to date. I’d agree with half of that statement. It’s the only movie she’s ever been good in (and yes, that includes WALK THE LINE), but it’s not her movie. This movie belongs to Matthew Broderick and, like Witherspoon, it’s his best performance. Better than FERRIS BUELLER or GLORY you ask? Yes, absolutely. Broderick owns Bueller, no doubt, but he shines in ELECTION.
The great thing about Broderick is his everyman appeal. He’s got an innocent charm that he’s applied in many of his films (FERRIS included) and it starts off that way with ELECTION. He seems every bit that cool charmer that he always is, until he’s confronted with a moral conundrum that’s more than a little vengeful. After his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave, is fired for having an extra-marital affair with Tracy, Mr. McAllister feels that she’s hardly the innocent go-getter she pretends to be and basically wants to see her put in her place.
However, with no one running against her in the election, Mr. McAllister has an epiphany (while watching porn, no less) and decides to enlist the popular jock, Paul, to run against her. Things get more complicated when Paul’s sister (Jessica Campbell) decides to run in the election as a means of revenge when her girlfriend leaves her for Paul (punctuated with Chris Klein’s hilarious “blowjob” scene). Ultimately, the election becomes about individual motivations rather than the actual goal of winning to be a part of the student body.
“All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.” – Alexander Payne
What follows is a journey of allegorical satire that examines the ugliness we can all display when attempting to win, including the ugliness of those who would do anything to see someone lose, and all the stupid mistakes we make when not using rational thought as our guiding light. It transcends well beyond a basic high school election, because it speaks a lot about who we are at the core when faced with temptation, competition, and jealousy. It’s painfully funny in so many ways, mostly because we’ve all had crazy predicaments that paint us into a corner and oftentimes all you can do is wait and see what happens, fingers crossed that it isn’t devastatingly awful or embarrassing.
Broderick, for his part, is the character that suffers the most. He is put through the ringer, ultimately by his own hand, at every turn, often making him every bit as immoral as Tracy. His intentions, which are to put Tracy in her place, backfire at every turn, even when she’s shown to be every bit as conniving. And Broderick kills it. He hits on every twitch, nod, reaction, and outburst, going from calm professional to obsessed maniac at the turn of a screw. It’s a warts-and-all-performance and makes for a character that you should probably hate, but still want to see pull through.
“…My character is not supposed to be the poster boy for teachers. And he certainly suffers for whatever mistakes he makes. If you want to look at it as a morality tale, he certainly pays for it. He seems to be living in total oblivion at the beginning. He's a happy teacher and he's going to be doing this the rest of his life. He's happily married. I think it's true that, right beneath the surface is waiting to burst out a whole different person. He's just happy and not aware of it…” – Matthew Broderick
Witherspoon earned a lot of accolades for her part and deservedly so (for once). She plays Tracy with all the fervor of the girl you likely hated in high school. You know the one. She was class president. She was involved in every group, always smiling and cheery, always getting her way. You knew she would go on to great things, like an Ivy League college and high salary job. And you hated her for it, even if you didn’t exactly know why. Witherspoon embodies all of that, while still adding enough spirit to make her at least somewhat likeable.
The structure of the film is brilliant. Introductions are made, which segue into flashbacks, which segue back to present day and various uses of voiceover, freeze frame to mild CGI (the “talking heads” scene while Broderick “fills up” his wife is awesome) pumping up the otherwise restrained deftness that carries it. Payne has proven to be a great storyteller and the amount of detail and craft that went into making ELECTION is evident in every frame.
Having rewatched the movie for this column (as I do each week), I have to say that ELECTION holds up tremendously. It looks sharp and vibrant in HD and everyone pulls out such great performances, making it instantly rewatchable. Payne has made great films since ELECTION (indeed ABOUT SCMIDT belongs in this column as well), but I feel that this is his signature pic. If nothing else, simply watching Broderick and Witherspoon at the height of their acting ability is a treat in itself.
“How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life — I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.” – Alexander Payne
Like most movies, ELECTION is full of memorable scenes, but I think the one that really gets to the bottom of the conflict is the scene where Mr. McAllister confronts Tracy and accuses her of tearing down Paul’s campaign posters. It’s like an argument that starts over one thing and then snowballs into the heart of the real issue, which in this case is Mr. McAllister’s vengeful spite being at the center of his accusations and general disdain for Tracy, who in turn unleashes her own fury.
ELECTION is available on blu-ray and digital download (as well as HBO GO for subscribers). Get it here!
“You can certainly read Election as a high school novel. In fact, most critics did when the book came out. It was very disappointing for me because nobody seemed to understand that it was an allegory and that it was a political satire. But when the movie came out—and the movie really pushed the satirical element of the book, really magnified it—then suddenly critics understood it. And it was a humbling thing for me as a writer because I felt like the film embodied my intention maybe more powerfully than I had on the page. On the other hand, I felt—sad to say—that film critics were smarter than book critics.” – Tom Perrotta
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