Election is a facetious, smarty-pants satire about a popular Midwest-high-school history teacher and student-government adviser, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who acquires as his nemesis the school’s No. 1 student overachiever, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). Director Alexander Payne and his screenwriter Jim Taylor – who worked together on Payne’s first feature, the abortion-rights comedy Citizen Ruth – should be commended for making a high-school movie that, for a change, isn’t aimed only at high-schoolers. Election is an anti-high-school high-school movie, and it captures the drear institutional climate: the ugly green hallways and generic auditoriums and the way the principal says “People, please” and all the other memento mori of those years.
But Election could stand to be a bit less satisfied with its smarts. After a while, you begin to wonder what makes Payne and Taylor so all-fired special: Like brainy adolescents, they mock just about everybody in sight – not just two-faced teachers or the go-getter Tracy, with her predatory wiles, but the school’s lunkhead football star, Paul (Chris Klein), whom Jim coaxes into running against Tracy for class president, thereby incurring her everlasting wrath. Paul’s lesbian sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who stumps for president on an abolish-student-government platform and (intentionally) gets herself thrown into an all-girls parochial school, comes closest to being the movie’s hero. Her snideness is a relief from Tracy’s cast-iron twinkles. What is it about high-school overachievers that gets the goat of movie directors these days? Jason Schwartzman’s turbocharged Max in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore is kin to Tracy; he’s more personable than she is, but you still get the feeling, as you do in Election, that the filmmakers are settling an old score. Film directors tend to be overachievers, too. Maybe the score being settled is with themselves.