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With: Reese Witherspoon, Matthew Broderick, Chris Klein, Jessica Campbell
Written by: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta
Directed by: Alexander Payne
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103
Date: 04/23/1999

Election (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Flick or Treat

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Election is about a twisted, backstabbing run for political office amongcandidates who are self-centered and slightly dim. No, this isn't the Democratsand the Republicans. This is high school. Reese Witherspoon stars in perhaps her very best performance as Tracy Flick, the go-getter who must succeed in everything come hell or high water.

Matthew Broderick plays her teacher, Mr. McAllister, who doesn't like Tracy. His best friend, another teacher, got fired for having a relationship with her. Tracy is running unopposed for student council president. McAllister doesn't want to see her succeed and continue to step on everyone in her adult life, so he convinces a former football star, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) who has been injured and needs a purpose in life -- to run against Tracy. Paul's budding lesbian sister, Tammy (Jessica Campbell) is jealous because Paul has unwittingly run off with her would-be girlfriend, so she decides to run too. The corker is that Tammy becomes the most popular candidate with her platform of "I don't care."

There are more twists to this tawdry tale, but I won't give them away. The movie is scripted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from the novel by Tom Perotta, and is directed by Payne. Payne and Taylor last did Citizen Ruth, another political mind-bender that had pro-life zealots and pro-choice maniacs vying for the poster child support of the pregnant glue-sniffing Laura Dern. The trick with that movie was that Payne and Taylor refused to paint good guys and bad guys. Everyone came out a little dirty. The trouble with that tactic was that there was no one to root for for 100 minutes. Election succeeds a little better because there are more sides to the story. McAllister is a bit of a sad sack. He and his wife can't have a baby, and he doesn't have much of a home life. His teaching job is everything to him, and Tracy is a pain in his neck. Tracy comes from a middle-class family, and can't stand to see rich kids like Paul get everything handed to them. Paul, although a jock, a rich kid, and a dunderhead, is really nice. And his sister just wants to be loved in the way that she wants to be loved.

The movie is full of hilarious nasty little moments, like when we first meet Tracy. McAllister is narrating, introducing us to his life. He asks a question in class (the difference between morals and ethics) and Tracy holds her hand up bolt upright, patiently, endlessly while McAllister looks for some -- any -- other volunteer. Finally, he calls on Tracy, she starts her spiel, and Payne freeze-frames on her face, catching it at a most unpleasant moment; eyes half-open, mouth in the middle of pronouncing some horrendous word. Then McAllister's narration continues. It's cruel and very funny. Another scene has McAllister, his eye swollen from a bee sting, having spent the night in his car for committing marital infidelities, and -- finding he still can't go in the house -- is forced to urinate on his own front lawn.

I have to say again just how good Witherspoon is in this role. She started out as a slutty bad girl in Freeway, Twilight, and Pleasantville, and now here she is on the other side of the spectrum as an uptight goody-goody. When she moves it's as if there's a wound-up spring running up and down her body. When angry, she flares her nostrils like they're helium balloons. I'm not sure who I'd rather watch; Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, Natalie Portman, or Christina Ricci. There's enough talent and screen presence between the four of them to fill the shoes of a Katharine Hepburn or a Bette Davis. I hope the Academy remembers this movie when Oscar time comes and, once again, they can't find five decent performances to fill the Best Actress category.

Election works because all these characters are multi-sided and because the story is so vicious. As a bonus, we are allowed to read references to adult political races into the smaller petri dish high school race, but without being preached to. Kudos to Payne and Taylor for their courage, balance, and humor.

The Criterion Collection's excellent 2017 Blu-ray edition comes with a new, restored transfer supervised by Payne. Picture and sound are excellent, bold and a little gritty. Extras include a commentary track from the 1999 DVD release, a new interview with Witherspoon, Payne's 1990 UCLA thesis short film, and a 2016 documentary with on-set footage, and a trailer. Critic Dana Stevens provides the liner notes essay.

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