Movies You Might Have Missed: Alexander Payne's Election

This black comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick about a student and a teacher in a feud is by the director who would go on to make ‘About Schmidt’, ‘Sideways’ and ‘Nebraska’

Reese Witherspoon as high school student Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's 1999 film 'Election'
Reese Witherspoon as high school student Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne's 1999 film 'Election'

Politics and cinema make strange bedfellows. The political persuasions of potential cinema-goers and their uneasy relationship with anything that seems akin to preaching makes Hollywood executives nervous. Every so often, though, a film of this ilk will be so perfectly pitched that it slips through the net. Election is one such movie: a cutting satire, black comedy and cautionary tale held together by outstanding performances from its leads.

Election is the second film directed by Alexander Payne, the man who would go on to make About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska. It is based on Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name, a work inspired by two actual events: Ross Perot entering the 1992 presidential election as a third candidate and an incident in Wisconsin in which a pregnant student was elected homecoming queen but staff announced a different winner and destroyed the evidence.

The great Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, a know-it-all high school student with the kind of relentless ambition that might make Lady Macbeth blush. Naturally, Tracy decides to run for class president but her teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, is going through a tough time and decides that she needs to learn that not everything will always go her way. A rigged election, morally ambiguous candidates and underhand tricks ensure this film is as relevant today as it was on release in 1999.

The film was a box-office bomb, not least because it was a dark, adult tale marketed as a teen comedy. The casting of Broderick is an inspired stroke since he will always be best known for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, yet here he’s a teacher afforded the kind of respect Ferris never had for figures of authority. Payne stays true to the spirit of the book by offering a novelistic approach which allows sections of the narrative to be delivered from the points of view of four characters using flashbacks, voiceovers and freeze frames.

Witherspoon is sensational here, quite possibly the zenith of a career possibly bursting with highlights. Her Tracy is at once shrewd, manipulative and vulnerable. She is one of life’s winners and the audience fluctuates between disapproval and pity towards the overachiever as the film progresses. Chris Klein, in his big screen debut, and Jessica Campbell as his character’s sister, provide reliable support as the other two students in the election, rounded characters with their own complex inner lives. A sharp script, skilful characterisation and a masterclass from one of the greatest living actors ensure this is one Election that’s a joy to experience.

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