High school movies. We’ve all seen them. We know their tell-tale signs, their signature tropes. The typical cliques haven’t really changed much since the genre came into being back in the 50s: there’s the jocks in their letterman jackets, the nerds carrying stacks of books that beg to be knocked over by said jocks and the cheerleaders who laugh at their misfortune. Like the Wild West, the American High School™ seems to occupy this bizarre, almost mythological space in culture, helped along by Hollywood screenwriters who have sought to spin up this kind of weird caricature of teenage life in the States.
Films of the high school genre are wildly popular, with some going on to be remembered as certified classics such as Grease or The Breakfast Club, while more recent releases like 21 Jump Street or Mean Girls continue to update and expand upon the stereotypes we’re all familiar with in a modern context. Somewhere along the way though, 1999’s black comedy Election directed by Alexander Payne got lost to the annals of time. I think that’s a shame, because it’s a rare gem – a movie that demonstrates a self-awareness that is hard to come by amongst films of the same genre.
The plot is pretty bread and butter, at least on the surface. There’s an election coming up for student body president, and goody two-shoes Tracy Flick (played to a tee by a young Reese Witherspoon) is running unopposed, hoping to round off her already impressive college resume with yet another accolade. Jim McAllister (played by Matthew Broderick, who some might remember as Ferris Bueller) is a civics teacher at the school, and he harbours a degree of resentment for Tracy that we come to learn is borne out of an inappropriate relationship which involved her and former member of staff Dave, who also happened to be Mr McAllister’s best mate.
It’s safe to say Dave no longer works at the school, but Jim can’t help but hold on to a grudge. As the staff overseer of the student government, he detests the idea of close collaboration with Tracy, and he decides to put up air head Paul Metzler – an archetypal quarterback character who has been side-lined by a horrible ski accident – to the challenge of taking on Tracy for the role. What was once a one-horse race soon turns to three, as Paul’s outcast younger sister Tammy decides to run out of spite that her love obsession Lisa has started shagging Paul and is working as his campaign manager.
The film then spills into the drama of the race as the candidates try to win the favour of their fellow students. Paul banks on his popularity but doesn’t really have a knack for harnessing it in any way, Tracy furiously presses pin badges and hands out free gum to garner votes, and Tammy manages to rally a huge swell of support by giving the entire farce two fingers. We follow the story mostly through the perspective of Mr McAllister, whose mundane marriage and beige suburban existence has been briefly made exciting by the events unfolding at the school. Tracy cottons on to his meddling, and their rivalry only grows in intensity as the film rattles towards its conclusion.
The film makes use of all the usual signatures of high school films like freeze frames, character expositions and a simplistic plot that centres around something obvious like a prom night or student election. What sets it apart is how it subverts all these different elements in a tongue-in-cheek way – delivering surprising, genuinely funny moments that catch you off guard. Unflattering freeze frames of Tracy are used to expose the burning hatred Mr McAllister has for her, character expositions feign a pretend innocence whilst grappling with some mature themes of angst and sexuality, and (no spoilers) the viewer is denied the ending they were expecting as things begin to unravel for Jim in a way that’s kind of open-ended and ambiguous.
Election flopped at the box office. I think that’s maybe because in trying to be a clever commentary on American society dressed up in the familiar clothes of a high school genre film it likely turned off people who could have been interested in seeing either of those things on their own. I could wax lyrical about how the film is an engaging, ahead of its time political satire. I could recommend it solely on the basis that it doesn’t shy away from the awkward reality of being a teenager in the way that more glamorous Hollywood films tend to do. Ultimately though the film is just a tremendously entertaining, Machiavellian saga with dizzying twists and turns, and its reputation as a cult classic is thoroughly deserved. Go check it out.
Words by Charlie Forbes