(American, 1999, 101 minutes, color, 35mm)
Director/Screenwriter - Alexander Payne
ELECTION is based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, whose previous collection of short stories, Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, attracted the attention of producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Partners in Bona Fide Productions who developed and produced Steven Soderbergh’s KING OF THE HILL. Berger and Yerxa read a copy of Perrotta’s unpublished novel Election and were intrigued by its spin on atypical teacher-student relationships.
Perrotta was inspired to write the novel by two events: the 1992 presidential election campaign which included Ross Perot as a third party candidate, and an incident where a conservative high school principal in the South invalidated a prom queen election because the winner was pregnant.
ELECTION was shot entirely on location in director Alexander Payne’s hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, as was his film debut, CITIZEN RUTH. Once the company completed location exteriors around Omaha, it began a month of shooting indoors at Papillion-La Vista High School in the city’s suburb of Papillion. During the month-long period needed to complete the scenes, the company worked a six-day week (idle Thursdays), which allowed for unfettered access on weekends and cooperative filming when school was in session.
Producer Berger said: "At first I didn’t know if shooting in an active school would work, but it did. Teachers played teachers in the film. I feel grateful to the students and faculty for such a terrific experience."
Director Payne agreed: "Shooting here allowed us the opportunity to capture a sense of reality in both visuals and the sound. Plus the performances of both the professional and non-professional actors benefited from their being in an actual functioning high school."
At Payne’s suggestion, Reese Witherspoon went back to class and spent two weeks in Omaha hanging out with high schoolers "pretending to be a transfer student," she says. "It was really interesting because I was escorted by a girl very much like my character—president of the student council, captain of the volleyball team and head cheerleader—a total overachiever. The experience helped me to get back in the mind-set of teenagers and empathize with their problems."
Paul (gridiron hero and reluctant presidential candidate), is played by Omaha discovery Chris Klein, who made his professional debut. A drama student at Texas Christian University, the 18-year-old was four weeks into his first semester when he won the role, stemming from a chance encounter with Payne during his senior year at Millard West High School in Omaha. Payne, scouting the school as a possible location, was introduced by the school’s principal to the budding actor, who had played the role of Tony in the school’s staging of West Side Story. "Alexander called me later that summer and asked me if I’d like to audition for the film," Klein recalled. "I did, then went to Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, where Alexander called me and told me I had the role."
I remember students like Tracy Flick, the know-it-all who always has her hand in the air, while the teacher desperately looks for someone else to call on. In fact, I was a student like Tracy Flick. "A legend in my own mind," they wrote under my photo in the Urbana High School yearbook. I remember informing an English teacher that I didn't know why we were wasting time on the short stories of Eudora Welty when I could write better ones myself.
Tracy is smarter than that, and would never occupy such an exposed position. She's the subject of Alexander Payne's ELECTION, a wicked satire about an election for student government president, a post Tracy wants to win to go along with her collection of every other prize in school. What sets this film aside from all the other recent high school movies is that it doesn't limit itself to the world view of teenagers, but sees Tracy mostly through the eyes of a teacher [Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick] who has had more than enough of her.
The story, based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, shows McAllister as a dedicated teacher who is simply steamrollered by Tracy Flick. He narrates the film in a tone balanced between wonder and horror, and Broderick's performance does a good job of keeping that balance. Whatever else, he is fascinated by the phenomenon of Tracy Flick. We're inevitably reminded of Sammy Glick, the hero of Budd Schulberg's Hollywood classic WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?, who had his eye on the prize and his feet on the shoulders of the little people he climbed over on his way to the top. ELECTION makes the useful observation that although troublemakers cause problems for teachers, it's the compulsive overachievers who can drive them mad.
Alexander Payne is a director whose satire is omnidirectional. He doesn't choose an easy target and march on it. He stands in the middle of his story and attacks on all directions. His first film was CITIZEN RUTH(1996), starring Laura Dern as a pregnant, glue-sniffing young woman who was a moronic loser, but became the focus of a court battle between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces. What was astonishing about his film (and probably damaged it at the box office) was that he didn't choose sides, but satirized both sides with cheerful open-mindedness.
— Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times
ELECTION is Alexander Payne's acerbic satire of the American electoral process... it joins his earlier (and even more wicked) CITIZEN RUTH in skewering political ethics and behavior, with a lovely ear for hypocritical conversation. The screenplay, by Payne and Jim Taylor, delights in letting the teachers sound extra-teachery ("Good luck there, Tracy") and in keeping all the characters a few beats off what they actually mean. In keeping with that spirit, the film takes place at George Washington Carver High School, where almost all the students are white.
This story might have lent itself to pratfalls and broad gags, but Payne keeps it chillier. He sees the frailties of all the film's characters, even if its plot is supposedly about winners and losers. And for all its nicely malevolent humor, this is a story that ultimately leads to disillusionment. As in CITIZEN RUTH, Payne avoids resolving real issues with a simple ending.
Broderick knows how to make a fool of himself in very funny ways, and he gives a sneakily good performance here. Ms. Witherspoon, narrowing her eyes into slits whenever Tracy is thwarted, charges through the film with all due comic monstrousness and turns her character into somebody everyone knows.
— Janet Maslin, The New York Times
Of the many vividly evocative truths to surface in ELECTION, Alexander Payne's disarming, dead-on second film, the one that gives the most pause comes during the student body candidates' debate. Tammy Metzler (Jessica Campbell), school weirdo and darkhorse presidential candidate, uses her floor time to tell Carver High's adolescent electorate that the contest is more or less only about the candidate's egos and putting a victory on their college application.
Tammy's observant truth is recognizable to anyone who's had to suffer through a student government campaign in which the only people who really cared about the election were the handful of candidates and that one overworked teacher responsible for organizing it. Rare was that kid who seemed to truly believe in the power of student government. For most of us, the high school election didn't seem to make sense because it was a public, organized campaign of the politics of popularity that high school was all about. The president never presided and the government never ruled.
With ELECTION, Payne announces himself as one of the keenest purveyors of the scattered pieces [of] an American morality. For him, absolute good is as mythical and mythologized as absolute bad. And he wades through the vast gray area in between with aplomb, sagacity and a bracing lack of presumption, tempered with unbridled suspicion.
One of ELECTION’s many beauties is the graininess that gives the classrooms and corridors the homemade quality missing from distressingly overproduced TV cover stories and the new teen flick of the week, as well as the cornfed American nuance disappeared from a farce like FARGO.
Even the usually sexed-up or underused Witherspoon is born-again as an actress of fierce, head-turning revelation in a hell-for-leather funny incarnation of snappy drive that finally releases her from the remuda of her pony-actress peers.
— Wesley Morris, The San Francisco Examiner
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