Reese Witherspoon stars as Tracy Flick, one of these overly perky overachieving, gogetting girls you find in every school. All that matters to her is pursuing her dream, some vague notion of success that asks for constant effort and overwhelming ambition. While she’s in high school, that also means missing out on social fun. Students tend to be intimidated by those who think they’re so great. Teachers, too. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) is one of them. He loves his job and the kids he teaches to, but he’s fed up of that Tracy chick who never takes it easy and who always has her hand straight up in the air whenever he asks a question. Plus, she had an affair with his fellow teacher and buddy Dave, getting him fired. So when she runs for president of the student council unchallenged, McAllister tries to stop her by convincing a popular football jock (Chris Klein) to run against her. And soon, a third candidate enrolls, none other than the jock’s own sister (Jessica Campbell), a lesbian misfit with an agenda of her own.
What’s so great about “Election” is that the plot is only the frame for an extremely sharp, multi-layered and inspired satire. I love how none of the characters are one-dimensional caricatures; this is a comedy, but also a character study. For example, Tracy is an annoying bitch, but we still get to understand her motives and even feel compassion for her. It’s also great how the jock isn’t a dumb and mean stereotype but actually the movie’s most earnest character. His sister, too, is very interesting, as she is an outcast but also unafraid to speak her mind and pretty cool. And then there’s McAllister, who isn’t just “the teacher” but a fully-formed character with other problems at home (there’s a subplot about how he grows closer to Dave’s ex-wife).
“Election” was co-written and directed by Alexander Payne (“Citizen Ruth”). His latest feature follows and surpasses Todd Solondz’ “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore” as one of the most accurate high school comedies I’ve ever seen, as well as an original and stylish picture. It’s always nice to see movies so free-spirited and full of ideas. Payne pinpoints hypocrisy and naiveté wherever it is. What makes the movie even more wonderful is the flawless cast. Broderick is very good, and it’s fun to see Ferris Bueller switching side and playing a teacher. But this is Reese Witherspoon’s breakthrough film. I had noticed how good she was in films like “Pleasantville” and “Cruel Intentions”, but here she delivers a dead-on comic performance, like Alicia Silverstone did in “Clueless”. “Election” is definitively a film to see: it’s terrific entertainment but also an incredibly smart satire, and one of the year’s best films.