Film studies: She's classy. She's presidential. She's Reese

The unlikely names run together in chattery abandon - Parker Posey, Heather Graham, Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, Cameron Diaz, Alicia Silverstone, Drew Barrymore, Liv Tyler, Neve Campbell, Denise Richards, and so on. Los Angeles, crowded out with drop-dead kids, seems to require some Warholian likelihood that every one will get her chance in a picture. It's a sort of snapshot souvenir - proof that they were here. What's the risk, the system asks: you get new meat on the screen, a 10 for ravishing desirability, and the girl walks off with a few hundred grand and the experience. It's a start in life. Where's the harm, when the kids are wide-eyed know-nothings with this one loony sophistication - they seem to possess every acting pose gathered in a century of movies.

So long as none of them thinks she's Reese Witherspoon. Ms Witherspoon is still only 23. She attended Stanford University after coming out of Nashville, Tennessee - and that, along with her fancy tweed-and-brogues name, is enough to indicate some ripe old southern family, acquainted with money and class, with a dash of eccentricity. You don't send a pretty girl out into the wilds of America calling her "Reese Witherspoon" without a large degree of ignorance, or a tease's urge to watch what happens. Equally, if you're going to grow up as "Reese Witherspoon", you need a certain mix of nerve.

Reese Witherspoon burst upon the scene three years ago with a film called Freeway in which her character, Vanessa Julia Lutz, became one of the most commanding Wanted (and Dreaded) posters of modern film. Freeway opens with a classic demolition of the high-school myth. It's up to us whether we see it as satire or flat record, but there's a senior class - strapping young animals - struggling to read the blackboard sentence "The cat drinks milk". Vanessa is comprehensively made up, dressed for action, and either she's a natural gallows comedian or it really takes her 30 seconds to struggle with the sentence. But when she gets it right, she turns for her reward: a lingering, open-mouth kiss from her boyfriend, "Chopper".

Later on, it is said that Vanessa is illiterate and depraved, though she does seem to read a few fragments for plot information. It's more to the point that Vanessa is inclined to take shelter in dumbness. It's vital that she is also very acute and knows that America measures success by survival and getting your story in print first. She's white trash, equipped with a tuneable Texas whine, and the ambivalent seductiveness of a Lolita with killer bees in her underpants. She's also a God-fearing innocent who, when life sends her on the road, falls in with no less than "the I-5 highway serial killer", the horrid Bob (brilliantly played by Kiefer Sutherland). But she gets the drop on him and then plugs a few bullets into him when she's made sure he's on terms with the Lord Jesus Christ his Saviour.

Directed by a first-timer, Matthew Bright, Freeway is a blithe inversion of threatened-youth pictures. This kid is a lethal mix of raw energy and TV dialogue. She "wins through" in the end, gets her due as the slayer of evil Bob and deserves an hour on Oprah as the ideal American waif who stood up to cruel fate. Freeway goes helter-skelter fast, and you don't want it to stop. Let's just say that the film was co-produced by Oliver Stone, yet is subtler and more alarming than his own Natural Born Killers. And it depends absolutely on Reese Witherspoon.

In her new picture, Election (directed by Alexander Payne), she is something like the young, hard bud of a Hillary Clinton in the making. Tracy Flick is a high-school princess, an A student, a sure thing for class president. But her ghastly primness irritates an idealistic young teacher (Matthew Broderick) and persuades him to sabotage her campaign. (He is also prompted by the fact that she has had an affair with another teacher that ruins the guy's career.) Where Vanessa was a great lipstick smear across the screen, Tracy is buttoned up and repressed. (It's very intriguing that in the early affair the older man is amazed at her lubricity.)

There's a hidden force in Tracy, a neurosis, that comes out when she's thwarted. When her plan for putting up her own posters hits a small, fussy mistake, she turns into a witch, ripping out every poster in the school. Guess who wins the election? Guess what American city Tracy Flick is headed for? Election is, among other things, a poke in the eye for an America that has reduced itself to popularity contests in the name of democracy.

Reese Witherspoon has done other things - Cruel Intentions, Pleasantville, Fear, The Man in the Moon. Soon she will face a great test when she grows too old to play high-school Medusas. Is there an older woman waiting? We'll see, but in the meantime Reese Witherspoon is the best comic actress on the American screen. And her special brand of drop-dead is: that's what could happen to you if you stare too hard at her.

Election (15) is released on 24 Sept

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Scandi crush: Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    Th Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser
    'Enhanced interrogation techniques?' When language is distorted to hide state crimes

    Robert Fisk on the CIA 'torture report'

    Once again language is distorted in order to hide US state wrongdoing
    Radio 1’s new chart host must placate the Swifties and Azaleans

    Radio 1 to mediate between the Swifties and Azaleans

    New chart host Clara Amfo must placate pop's fan armies
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'It's life, and not the Forces, that gets you'

    The head of Veterans Aid on how his charity is changing perceptions of ex-servicemen and women in need
    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Torture: It didn't work then, it doesn't work now

    Its use is always wrong and, despite CIA justifications post 9/11, the information obtained from it is invariably tainted, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Rebranding Christmas: More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence

    Rebranding Christmas

    More public bodies are refusing to give the festival its name for fear of causing offence. They are missing the point, and we all need to grow up