Election * * * * 1/2
Directed by: Alexander Payne / 1999
Movie lovers and critics tend to agree that 1999 was a banner year at the movies, a changing of the tide, if you will. If you keep up, a few titles such as “Magnolia”, “Being John Malkovich”, “Fight Club”, “Three Kings”, “The Sixth Sense”, “American Beauty” and “The Matrix” stick out as rattling the halls of film and they still do in the way we experience film nearly a decade later. These films also cemented the arrivals of a new crop of creative pants wearing generation in Hollywood, gifted and smart young directing rebels who fought for the rights to make the art that they wanted to make. However, one such director and movie tends to disappear from the talk of 1999. That being, Alexander Payne and his darling little high school story on ethics and morals (and original comedy) titled, “Election”. It wasn’t the powerhouse like the aforementioned, but this gem has aged well and in many ways is more watchable and a heck of a lot more grounded in reality.
The ability to nail in his every-man characters the up and down gains and pains of life must be found in Payne’s mid-western background. He’s proven and even perfected his skills several times over from full-length to short films, even earning an Academy Award for his writing. For his first feature film, “Election”, Payne chose to stick to his hometown of Omaha, NE. This donated to the film a very real texture from the people to the clothing, dialogue, vehicles, locations, weather and scenery. I feel that because of his sensitivity to the details, that when Payne’s characters and situations do lean a bit off of center, they still feel a sense of grounded and very lived-in. Payne handles his first film masterfully and he lets his actors have their cupcakes and eat them too. Taking a role reversal to the one that made him every high schooler’s idol in “Ferris Buller’s Day Off”, Matthew Broderick stars as Mr. McAllister a role model teacher trying to make ends meet at home, but finding his feet in the classroom and in helping his students succeed. That is, until an over-achieving student named Tracy Flick (my favorite Reese Witherspoon role) shakes his ethical and moral foundation in the midst of an electrified, and at times bitter and sweet, student body election campaign.
Nearly ten years later, “Election” still has a fresh immediacy, depth and urgency to it that most movies about high school seem to lose by the end of their first semester. It’s the type of movie that after five times viewing, I can still find new little things, bitter and sweet, beneath its many layers. Layers that come surprisingly behind the mature hands and head of a first-time director tackling the immaturities and vulnerabilities of not only high school students, but human beings and life in general. Alexander Payne has yet to miss a mark on my ballot and he announces that he is here to stay…and play…with his wonderful “Election”.