by Don Rose
"ELECTION" still gets my vote. Loved this movie. The acting is stellar, especially Reese
Witherspoon (as type-A overachieving high school student Tracy Flick, who desperately wants to win the election for student body president) and Matthew Broderick (as civics teacher Jim McAllister, who wants to stop her because of her willingness to step on anyone and do anything, even if unethical, to win). The other two main characters are Paul (the popular jock who Jim convinces to run against Tracy) and his sister Tammy (who also runs for student body president to spite Paul and his new girlfriend Lisa, who spurned Tammy's deep affections).
Alexander Payne's direction is top notch. He unwinds the plot like a chess game, with each
of the four main characters like a piece that is developed slowly but surely, and Payne helps the viewer by giving an inside view of each one's thoughts via voiceovers delivered at key moments in the film. These VOs are often hilarious, but they also help reveal each character's goals, style and motivation. Whereas most films have one narrator at most, we get four, and it works.
By the time the film nears its conclusion, each of the main characters has moved on from the
high school where everything began and is in a better place, even Jim. It's as if Jim has finally graduated, even though he was a teacher not a student. He has graduated from a not-fully-alive phase in his life. His life had been stalled up to the school election; he was not really happy at home, and as Flick points out (in one of her narrative voiceover commentaries), Jim seemed to be stuck in a boring repeating pattern at school, teaching the same thing over and over, year after year. He was no longer vibrant and vital, living a small, impotent life -- which is underscored terrifically by what we see onscreen (e.g., the terrible tiny car Jim drives, and the fact that he is having trouble getting his wife pregnant during the film). Perhaps the real reason Jim despises Flick so much is that, although she lies and schemes to achieve her goals, at least she is trying to get ahead, to get to a better place, whereas Jim seems to have given up striving and is now merely surviving.
During the film, however, Jim changes. His actions become increasingly unethical, but he has, in a sense, gotten in touch again with his primal primitive self, both sexually (he allows himself to have a brief fling, with his best friend's ex no less) and emotionally (allowing his anger at Flick's lying and conniving to override his ethical beliefs as he throws out 2 key ballots to prevent Flick from winning the school election, albeit temporarily).
Jim's primal shift is underscored beautifully by visual cues. After Jim has finally allowed
himself access to his dark side (the affair), he suffers a bee sting on the eye when he
returns to the woman's home, and the eye swells to the point where he looks like half human,
half monster. In a way, that is what he is now -- he cheated on his wife, and he cheated in
the election ballot count. The eye swelling shut also emphasizes how Jim cannot see the
right thing to do anymore, blind to his logical ethical side as he gave in to his long-dormant
emotional side. Then, later on, Payne provides more visual cues as to Jim's state when we see
several diorama scenes depicting primitive man at the museum where Jim winds up working
after he loses his job and his wife and moves to the big city. Like primitive man was forced to move and evolve in order to survive in the face of new conditions, so has Jim.
Overall, it was a great film, not only enjoyable to watch but also a great education for budding
filmmakers who could learn a lot by studying the script as well as the direction, with its creative use of visual storytelling techniques. It may not have made a fortune at the box office when it came out a decade ago, but it continues to enjoy a strong following on DVD. The setting was excellent, too. The W Hotel's poolside area was packed to overflowing for this final screening of the LA Film Festival, and all in attendance seemed to have a great time. A wonderful way to end a wonderful week.
Even though this was the last of the films at this year's LAFF, Angelenos are in luck, because the W's poolside film series continues every Sunday, all summer long (with August 2's "Curious Case of Benjamin Button" sure to draw another packed crowd). Just remember: Summer, Sundays, Sundown. Super!
June 29, 2009
by Don Rose