Not that I remember with great clarity the rock I was sitting under when a little film entitled ‘Election’ drifted through the multiplexes; however, the rock must have been large enough to prevent me from seeing what fantastic little gems this movie had to offer.
Like such films as ‘The Cider House Rules’ and more recently ‘Chocolat’, films appear for nominations at the Academy Awards either before any kind of release in Britain; or like celluloid shadows that have been misguided in promotion; fallen foul to bad word of mouth, or just misguided altogether. As it was, I didn’t even notice Election’s nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
It’s a fair argument to say that the film may have looked misguided on its initial release here in Britain. Following in the wake of the ‘post-modern teen slasher’ films that initially graced the mid-nineties and eventually left more of a ‘stain’ rather than a ‘mark’ in the late nineties; and the revival of the so called ‘teen sex’ comedies; ‘Election’ may have appeared to be a somewhat muddled affair. Maybe it was down to the timing – people, or more accurately teenagers, may have wanted films they could easily relate to or films that stood out broadly with claims of ‘sex with pies’ and ‘internet voyeurism’? Election never made such broad claims, nor did it attempt to stand out in the crowd, however, if the teen audience that flocked to see ‘American Pie’ and ’10 Things I Hate About You’ had had a chance to peruse Payne’s film, they would’ve been pleasantly surprised. Put it down to lack of budget, or lack of backing, this film sadly missed its target audience but here on DVD, it has every chance of finding it.
‘Reese Witherspoon’ plays Tracy Flick, a straight ‘A’ student who works hard and expects results. As a student, she’s a teacher’s dream. However, with Tracy, what you see isn’t always what you get! Jim McAllister, Tracy’s Civics teacher isn’t someone who fully appreciates Tracy as a pupil. Sick of her over-achievement, McAllister senses his opportunity to derail the school's star pupil when she starts her campaign for student president. Enrolling school jock Paul Metzler as an opposing candidate, he believes with his expertise as a teacher and Paul’s following as a popular student, he holds the key to Tracy’s first failure. But, Paul has a little problem in that he isn’t very bright and after wooing his sister’s best friend into bed, Tammy Metzler runs against him just to spite him. This isn’t the only complication, as McAllister has relationship problems of his own to tend with.
Maybe this is the thinking man’s/woman’s teen movie. It operates on more levels than ‘American Pie’, but doesn’t, for instance, lose that sexual pull that ‘Pie’ exploited. It’s an arguable point that the film did indeed exploit a sexual edge, but it was done far more discreetly. Reese Witherspoon, entering the film as a relative newcomer with her most recent movie being the sexually driven, ‘Cruel Intentions’. Matthew Broderick, star of the teen comedy ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ and married to ‘Sex In The City’ star Sarah Jessica Parker. Chris Klein - direct from ‘American Pie’, playing a slightly different role to his wannabe ‘Casanova’.
One of the main things that first strikes me is Alexander Payne (Director) and Jim Taylor’s script. With razor sharp wit, it breaths intelligence into what seems like a simple set up, but turns out to be a complex study of power and prestige, and what we go to, to achieve it. More so, the characters are developed and rounded to create a sense of believability without ever forcing the audience to feel over sympathetic towards them. Additionally, the film never once moves back a gear into over-sentimentalism and certainly doesn’t lose its narrative drive even with the juggling of four character’s stories. One of the main reasons why the film is able to keep each character likeable is the use of voice over. It provides the audience with each character’s thoughts and doesn’t fall into the trap of ‘telling’ the story as if it was being read to you from a book. What we get is privileged knowledge through little anecdotes and ‘throw away’ lines.
A simple yet crucial part of the film’s quality is Payne’s non-intrusive camerawork. His cinematography is simple, and you never get the feeling he’s using anything other than available light. The sets are particularly bland and straight forward creating the sense that it could be any school, or any house in any neighbourhood. He let’s the actors carry the film and allows the dialogue to flow.
Reese Witherspoon was up for a Golden Globe for her performance and it comes as no surprise. She plays the part of ‘go-getter’ Tracy Flick with such ease you wonder how she could have become the sex symbol she is today. Always saying her lines with a sense of ‘glee’ her character is trying to present, yet keeping her facial expression to a minimum suggesting there’s a lot more to Tracy than what she presents on the outside. The real revelation is Matthew Broderick as Mr McAllister. In an ironic return to the classroom as a teacher, as opposed to the student he played in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’, he plays the pathetic man with just enough dignity to give the audience at least some reasoning to his plight. As brother and sister, Chris Klein and Jessica Campbell do well, but they are over-shadowed by Witherspoon and Broderick. However, if it’s any consolation, Klein can play dumb better than most and he proved it with the dire ‘Say It Isn’t So’.
The film is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. It is anamorphic enhanced and as you’d expect with recent releases, crystal clear. The only slight problem is that I did notice a little pixelation in dark shadows in some scenes but as the film is largely brightly lit in nature, this is hardly a major problem or distraction. The sound is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 but with a mainly dialogue based comedy the speakers hardly get pushed to any limits. The sound is largely front-oriented with only the musical score creating the feeling of a full-bodied sound. That’s not to say the 5.1 track is wasted; it still does its job in creating a sense of space in various scenes, and works well when voice-overs are used with the voice-over taking up the centre speaker and the scene it’s placed over using the right and left speakers.
The only extra on the disc is an audio commentary by the director. Although, there are some points of interest the commentary is largely bland and a little boring. With someone to work off (perhaps an actor or writer/producer) Payne might have been able to produce a much more fun commentary, but as it is, he struggles to keep your attention.
A hidden gem of a movie, this is a film that will make you laugh as well as make you think. Great performances from the leads and a great script coupled with simple direction. Although Paramount hasn’t bothered with a ‘Special Edition’, the film is the ‘speciality’ here. Certainly stands up to repeat viewing, certainly recommended.