Election (1999)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein
Extras: Commentary track

For those of you who read the reviews here at DVDReview.com, you may have noticed that I review a lot of movies that deal with teenagers. I don’t know why, but I really enjoy films like "Go", "10 Things I Hate About You" and "Can’t Hardly Wait" (which I’m always urging people to see). Maybe it’s arrested development. Whatever the reason, I’d expected my usual teenage movie viewing experience when I sat down to watch the DVD "Election". Was I in for a shock. At the 8:18 point, this movie lets you know that it’s not the typical high-school movie and that the faint-of-heart had better leave the room. "Election" doesn’t pull any punches and makes for a solid viewing experience.

Forget what you’ve heard about "Election" being an updated "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" with Matthew Broderick now playing the adult role. This description doesn’t come close to describing this powerful film.

As "Election" opens, we are introduced to our two main characters. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is a high-school history and civics teacher, who also assists with student government. He tries to teach his students about ethics and morality and really enjoys his job. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a young go-getter who is running for student-body president. Tracy has little time for a social life, as she is always pushing herself to excel in her pursuits, those being academics and school government. Through a series of creatively executed flashbacks, we learn the history of these two characters. We learn that McAllister doesn’t like Tracy (he has a good reason, which I won’t disclose), and that her constant perkiness and overachieving gets on his nerves. When he realizes that she’s running unopposed for student body president, McAllister decides to create an opponent for her. He recruits dim-witted, yet popular jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), who has broken his leg skiing, and therefore, can’t play football. When Tracy learns that she has an opponent, she becomes even more determined to win. Soon, another candidate joins the race (I won’t reveal who) and the competition becomes incredibly fierce. What started out as a plan to teach Tracy a lesson, has blown up in McAllister’s face and is now affecting his job and his homelife.

While the plot sounds very straightforward, the film is layered with subplots and flashbacks that make it much deeper. The story is told using the point of view of four different characters, and this shift in perspective helps to keep things moving. Whereas "Ferris Bueller" was a light-hearted romp, "Election" gets downright mean-spirited at times, as it explores the back-stabbing and treachery that can go into a high-school election. The film is about much more than just the competitiveness of the rivalry. It explores what makes Tracy Flick tick (so to speak) — why she is such an overachiever. It explores McAllister’s homelife and how he supplements the (relative) excitement of the election for the dreariness of his marriage. While some of the other characters aren’t explored as much, we do get to know them well enough to understand their motivations. It’s amazing what a difference it makes in a film when you have an idea why the characters are doing what they are doing.

Director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor (who had previously collaborated on "Citizen Ruth") have done a wonderful job of adapting the novel by Tom Perrotta (which I must admit, I am not familiar with). They have broken up the story and tell it in a unique fashion, while never drawing attention to their technique. The way the story fluctuates, with characters suddenly talking about the past or future, isn’t very different from the way most of us tell stories to our friends, and it’s always nice to see this sort of "colloquial" form put into a film. Also, Payne has a great eye for detail (more about that when I discuss the commentary) and has filled the film with some clever shots — especially the scene where each character is praying. While most of the film is shot in a straightforward and realistic manner, each shot has some additional visual information that relates to the story. Payne utilizes old-fashioned techniques such as wipes and opticals to help tell the story. "Election" was produced in association with MTV Films, but I can’t see the average teeny-bopper "TRL" fan getting a lot of the subtleties of "Election".

While I’ve never really given much thought to her in the past (she’s always been the girl who had Ryan Phillipe’s baby), Reese Witherspoon gives a tour-de-force performance in "Election." We all went to school with at least one Tracy Flick, the girl who has to be first to raise her hand because she knows every answer. Witherspoon does an amazing job of conveying the silent insanity that Tracy suffers as she tries to be the best at everything. She uses subtle body- language and facial gestures to instantly let the audience know what she’s thinking. Pay attention to the scene where the presidential candidates are making their speeches. When the third candidate is speaking, watch Tracy in the background. Her reactions are hilarious, and save Payne from having to cut away for a reaction shot — Witherspoon is in the background acting her heart out. As her nemesis, Matthew Broderick is easily as good. I usually find Broderick annoying, but in "Election" he has a firm grip on the character of Jim McAllister and his plight of being trapped in his teaching job. He is able to get across McAllister’s enthusiasm, desperation, and dispondency, all very realistically. Chris Klein has a real Keanu thing going and is very believable as the sweet, but dense Paul. Phil Reeves steals the show as Principal Hendricks. His body language and his dialogue reminded me so much of my high school principal, that it was scary!

Something that rarely jumps out in modern dramas is the costuming, but it really caught my eye in "Election". Tracy’s plaid skirts and gray tights tell the audience that this is a teenage girl who is coming of age, but must put functionality in front of sexuality. Also, the costumes for McAllister, consisting of short-sleeve dress shirts and ties that don’t match are right on the money for a lifelong high-school teacher. The Paramount Home Video DVD of "Election" presents the film in its <$PS,widescreen> format. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 (surprising for a teenage comedy) and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs. The framing is accurate, as there is no apparent warping of the frame. Director Payne has made good use of the <$PS,widescreen> format and this transfer is very appreciated. The picture is very clear and little grain is evident and there is no artifacting present. Payne has given the film a realistic look, but there are some scenes that use brilliant colors, which are rendered beautifully on the DVD. The audio on the "Election" DVD is <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> surround. While the dialogue is very clear and the music is well-balanced, I was disappointed by the lack of actual surround sound. Most of the audio is concentrated in the front speakers.

The only extra on "Election" is a <$commentary,commentary track> by director Alexander Payne. While Payne doesn’t talk consistently throughout the commentary, what he does say is typically very poignant. He points out the little themes, which are running through the movie — garbage, apples, circles — little things that help describe the character that may not be evident upon a casual viewing. Also, he gives some insight into some Hollywood conventions that don’t conform to reality (such as cars not having rearview mirrors) and how he tries to keep these out of his movies. Payne also tells some good anecdotes about shooting on location and how the film was cast.

"Election" was definitely a big surprise for me. I’d been expecting a high-school farce and instead got an intense movie with a lot of soul. "Election" is not for everyone. Some may find it very shocking. But, if you are a fan of teenage movies, who is looking for something with a little bit of a bite to it, than I vote for "Election."