Everyone's a politician in "Election", Alexander Payne's dark comedy about a student presidential election. Genius and overachiever Flick (Reese Witherspoon) acts like a chirpy angel on the outside, but look closer and she's vindictive, mean spirited and sexually precocious. Teacher Jim McAllister, who enthusiastically helps his students and school, is no better, as he cheats on his wife and embarks on a plot to ruin Flick's electoral chances. And on and on it goes, Payne peeling back pretence to reveal a cast of nasty, predatory schemers. Teachers suck up to students for sex, students selfishly run for candidacy in an attempt to get kicked out of school, and others merely take part in the election because they were manipulated into running. The point: life's a political rally, everyone has an ulterior motive, everyone's a spin-doctor, everyone's constantly maintaining their own little user generated political campaigns, designed to mislead, sucker, curry favour and win votes of confidence. Open your mouth and you're playing the game too.
"Election" does well to depict human behaviour as a cycle of neural elections, biochemical ballots held in our heads in which conflicting aspects of our messy personalities vie for what we say and do. But there's no democracy in our heads, and often instead a predisposition to tyranny; a kind of soft, interior fascism.
Payne traces the damage and consequences of this, each of his characters unwittingly leaving a trail of pain and destruction in their wake. They all pretend to "mean well" but no one means what they say, self-interest trumps altruism and altruism masks darker, swirling emotions anyway. It's a hopeless film.
"Election" was released a year after Wes Anderson's "Rushmore", a film whose plot it heavily resembles. But Payne's tone is closer to Todd Solondz and to a lesser extent the follies of the Coens, Neil Labute and Woody Allen. It's a conceited film, too impressed with its own cynicism, pessimism, and cast of cartoonish cretins, perverts, jerks and losers, but Payne is also perceptive in the way he forces you to continually reassess his characters. Little Flick, for example, seems like Payne's villain, but on the other hand she's a marginalised, lonely, sexually abused girl whose drive to succeed is the result of external pressures working on her. A similar inadequacy fuels her teacher McAllister, who sabotages Flick's campaign because his own life is in shambles. McAllister rationalises his actions as being ethical because Flick sabotaged the campaigns of other candidates – and on one level he's right to do this – but Flick's plot to exclude the other candidates, which echoes McAllister's plot to exclude Flick, itself merely echoes the social exclusion (deleted scenes further highlight that Flick lives in poverty) or alienation that drives Flick into politics. It's a kind of feedback loop, selfishness and jealousy breeding selfishness and jealousy, in which every subject justifies their action as being ethical because the other has no ethics.
"Election" is often touted as a satire on political campaigns. But the film is barely a satire, and has very little to do with politics, other than its broad jabs and your typical US candidates. In this regard you have the stuck up conservative who is secretly liberal in her private life and eventually reveals herself to be a kind of joyless Orwellian freak. Then there's the rich airhead candidate who's privately moral and upstanding but nevertheless knows and stands for nothing. Meanwhile, another candidate embodies a form of very modern, impotency and apathy. She eventually ditches the system to make out with her lesbian lover. Matthew Broderick, formerly known as a youth star of 1980s high school movies, is well cast in a somewhat ironic adult role. In the 80s, his characters typically rallied against the type of character he plays here.
8/10 – Worth one viewing.