Based on Tom Perrotta’s novel, Election is the story of a high school teacher who tries to stop an overachieving student from winning a student body election. Directed by Alexander Payne and screen adaptation by Payne and Jim Taylor, the film is a satirical comedy about the world of high school and suburban life as it’s set in Omaha, Nebraska. Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, and Jessica Campbell. Election is a witty yet charming comedy from Alexander Payne.
Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is an American history/civics teacher at high school in Omaha, Nebraska that is well-respected by colleagues and students as he’s set to run the upcoming student body election. Running for president is Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an ambitious student who has done a lot for the school as Jim holds a grudge against her due to an affair she had with a former colleague of his in Dave Novotny (Mark Harelik). Realizing that Tracy is unopposed and is likely to win, Jim convinces injured football star Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) to run against Tracy. Tracy decides to work harder against Paul until Paul’s younger adopted sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell) decides to run as an act of revenge when her friend Lisa (Frankie Ingrassia) leaves her for Paul.
While the election becomes crazier with Tammy deciding to cause some anarchy during the assembly, Jim’s personal life starts to unravel as his marriage to Diane (Molly Hagan) loses its spark as he becomes attracted to Dave’s ex-wife Linda (Delaney Driscoll). With Jim feeling more attached to Linda, suspicion arouses when Paul’s campaign posters had been torn as Jim suspects Tracy, who did tear them, until Tammy makes a false confession that she had done it. With Tammy expelled, it comes down to Tracy and Paul in the election as Jim’s personal feelings towards Tracy would make an impact for all of the fates involved in the election including his own.
While the film is kind of about a high school election where a teacher tries to destroy the dreams of an overachieving student. It’s really about the lives of a teacher and three students all caught up in a student body election that would definitely change their lives. While the Metzler siblings would use this election for different reasons in Paul finding some kind of life outside of football and Tammy as an act of revenge and later using it as an act of civil disobedience. The story is more about Jim trying to make Tracy lose as the two eventually come to terms that there’s more to life than just ambition and scheming.
The screenplay that Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor create is definitely engaging for the way it strands the multi-layered narrative into a single stream without becoming uneven or all-over-the-place. Instead, Payne and Taylor focus on what the four principle characters go through in this election and their motivations that is all told in each of their reflective voice-over narrations. While Tammy’s reason to be involved is for selfish reasons, she manages to get in by appealing to students who aren’t part of anything and her act of anarchy would later have the entire school rally for her. While it would make her a pariah with the school authority and further Tracy’s yearning to win, Tammy eventually gains something much bigger than everything else.
Then there’s Paul who is essentially the most innocent person involved in the election. While he gets roped into the election as a way to do something other than mope around over his injured leg, there is something about Paul that is relatable as someone who is very lucky and seems to appreciate everything that’s happening to him. Paul is a character that is impossible to dislike as he and Tammy both offer something that is appealing as neither of them seem interested in any real big plans for their future and just prefer to find some kind of happiness.
For Tracy, it’s all about going to a good school and do great things yet there is a flaw to her as her relationship with Dave would force her to realize that there’s more to life than ambition. She and Jim McAllister aren’t villains but people who really do bad things for their own selfish reasons. Jim is a guy who loves being a teacher but believes that Tracy is really doing things the wrong way and feels that the way she ruined Dave’s life only adds to his furor. Still, what he does is wrong while he would do further undoing when he engages into a brief affair with Dave’s wife. Payne and Taylor’s script succeeds for the way they allow the characters to be more than one-dimensional figures but rather as people who are very interesting and each have something that audiences can relate to.
Payne’s direction is truly solid for the way he presents the film as more than just a high school comedy. Instead, Payne adds a real sense of style to the presentation by infusing lots of humor the story such as a fantasy scene of Jim pretending he’s driving a nice car or him seeing Linda and Tracy while having sex with his wife. Since the film has a multi-layered narrative, Payne is able to make sure the film doesn’t make it overwhelming by keeping it simple while allowing each character’s arc to come together so people can follow through what is going on.
By having the film set mostly in Payne’s native home of Nebraska as it’s shot largely in Omaha, he clearly knows the city very well as there’s more to what the city offers than some town in the mid-west. Omaha becomes a character as Payne shoots in various locations to reveal the places that some of the characters like to wander into while adding a sense of beauty that is truly American cinema at its finest. Payne’s compositions for a lot of the scenes do play into framing styles as he would either freeze-frame things or present some sequences into a full-frame format while utilizing hand-held and tracking shots to follow the characters in their lives. Overall, Payne creates what is truly a funny yet engaging film that does more than what comedies often do.
Cinematographer James Glennon does a superb job with the film‘s low-colored photography to emphasize the rainy exterior look of Omaha and other locations like New York City and Washington D.C. while a lot of the interiors play up the natural look of what school look like including stylized looks for some of the characters in their home. Editor Kevin Tent does an amazing job with the editing as he brings a real sense of style to the editing in using jump cuts and other sorts of transitional movements to have the film move at a brisk pace. One of the key scenes that Tent’s editing comes to play is a scene where Jim McAllister gets himself in trouble as the editing is a tribute to the work of Nino Baragli for the Sergio Leone film The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly.
Production designer Jane Ann Stewart, along with set decorator Renee Davenport and art director T.K. Kirkpatrick, does an incredible job with the set pieces created such as the rooms and homes for some of the characters while creating posters and such for the film as it‘s shot largely in an actual Omaha high school. Costume designer Wendy Chuck does an excellent job with the costumes from the sweaters and more prim clothing that Tracy wears to the shirt and ties that Jim wears while the look of Tammy and Paul are much more casual. Sound editors Frank Gaeta and Scott Wolf do a great job with the sound work to capture the raucous atmosphere of the school plus sparse work on some of the exterior locations while layering the multiple narrations for its prayer montage scene.
Music composer Rolfe Kent does a fantastic job with the film‘s score that is very playful as it ranges from jazz to Latin rhythms. Kent’s score serves as the right tone for the film’s humor while bringing some low-key orchestral pieces for the dramatic moments of the film. Music supervisor Dondi Bastone does a nice job in assembling the soundtrack as it’s wide mixture of genres ranging from alt-rock acts like Mojave 3 and Spacehog to bits of jazz and pop, that includes Lionel Richie, along with a very inspired use of Ennio Morricone’s theme from Navajo Joe as the overall work on the music is brilliant.
The casting by Lisa Beach is terrific for the work put in as a lot of the extras and tiny roles are filled by locals and real kids that adds to the authenticity of the film. Notable small roles include Holmes Osborne and Jeanine Jackson as Paul’s parents, Loren Nelson as a disgruntled custodian, Matt Malloy as the vice principal, Nicholas D’Agosto as a student who assists Jim in the election voting, and Colleen Camp as Tracy’s supportive mother. Other standout supporting roles include Molly Hagan as Jim’s wife Diane, Mark Harelik as Jim’s old friend Dave, Delaney Driscoll as Dave’s wife Linda, Frankie Ingrassia as Paul’s girlfriend/Tammy’s ex Lisa, and Phil Reeves as the school principal Dr. Walt Hendricks.
Jessica Campbell is excellent as Tammy, a young lesbian whose heartbreak becomes the motive for her to join the election while trying rile up the school establishment as Campbell’s performance is engaging for bringing voice to a girl seemingly out of step with the world of school cliques and such. Chris Klein is wonderful as Paul, an all-around nice guy that finds himself being part of the election as he gains an idea that there’s more to life than sports as Klein’s performance is just immensely charming to watch.
Reese Witherspoon is phenomenal as Tracy Flick where Witherspoon brings a real complexity to a character that has a lot of enthusiasm but is also very cunning to get her way to the top. Witherspoon proves to be very funny and exciting while also making Tracy a character that people love to hate as it’s definitely the best role of her career. Finally, there’s Matthew Broderick in an outstanding performance as Jim McAllister. Far from the iconic role of Ferris Bueller, Broderick brings a real maturity to a teacher who loves his job while trying to make sure Tracy doesn’t win while his personal life begins to unravel. It’s a very exciting yet grounded performance from Broderick who allows his character to be human despite his actions.
Election is a magnificent yet hilarious film from Alexander Payne that features top-notch performances from Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Of the films that Payne has done from 1996 through 2004, it’s the best of the four as it combines all of the witty humor that Payne provides as well as real characters dealing with themselves in their own predicament. It’s also a film that gives a lot of satire to the world of elections and how people are willing to lose themselves in something that is quite dumb. In the end, Election is a triumphant comedy from Alexander Payne and company.
Alexander Payne Films: Citizen Ruth - About Schmidt - Sideways - Paris Je T’aime-14e Arrondissment - The Descendants - Nebraska - (Downsizing) - The Holdovers - (Tracy Flick Can't Win) - The Auteurs #5: Alexander Payne
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