As an American, I wanted to pay tribute to our recent presidential election by reviewing a film about politics. However, as is the case with most of my fellow Americans, I am completely sick of talking about national politics, fictional or otherwise. Thus, I decided to pay homage to our country by reviewing a film about an election that has nothing to do with our nation! Election is a film that I have a hard time pinning down. Starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, it is a film about an election for Student Body President at a typical high school that goes very, very wrong.
The absolute best thing about this film is the character development. In the beginning, not even four minutes go by before you know exactly what Mr. McAllister and Tracy Flick are like. Their entire personalities are laid out before you in a matter of minutes without a word of dialogue.
If you have ever taken a creative writing class, one of the first things they teach you is to show, not tell. The same goes for film and it is surprising how many movies try to explain situations or characters using dialogue instead of actions. This film does not fall into those traps and anything you need to know about the film is usually told through physical expression, not dialogue. In fact, one of the reasons this works so well for character development is due to the contrast of imagery and the character narration. It is made very easy to see that what the characters think of themselves and what is actually happening are two extremely different things.
Not only are Mr. McAllister and Tracy Flick easy to understand through their actions and narrations, but so are many of the other characters. When the film introduces Tammy Metzler, it is easily understood through what we are shown that she is a bit rebellious and codependent, despite believing herself to be simply sentimental and emotional. This movie does a near flawless job of making sure you know exactly who the characters are, but not necessarily from just their opinions of themselves.
However, that is one thing that makes this film hard to pin down. The characters are developed extraordinarily well, but they are almost too realistic. Every character has good traits along with bad traits, and it becomes hard to like anyone due to how often their negative traits are portrayed. It is clear that you’re essentially supposed to be rooting for Mr. McAllister, but he abuses his power as a teacher to sabotage a high school election while simultaneously cheating on his wife, and hides knowledge of a teacher-student affair in the beginning of the film. Yes, Tracy Flick is mostly annoying as a character, but there are scenes that are quite redeeming for her. Toward the end of the film in a segment that could be described as “Where Are They Now?” Tracy reminisces about her affair with a former teacher and expresses how she misses their talks and wonders if he ever finished his novel. It is heartbreaking to remember that as uptight as she is, she is still just a young, lonely girl trying to figure things out. She even seems to regret her actions slightly as she walks alone, hair not as perfectly made as usual, watching other students get their yearbooks signed in the parking lot. She is annoying and uptight, but she’s also been raised by a mother who is living through her and has never been able to just relax and make friends.
A film wouldn’t be good at showing and not telling if it had no concept of cinematography or mise-en-scene, and this film has an excellent command of both. There were a few awkward scenes, like the scenes of Paul breaking his leg are actually three separate clips involving three separate people (first clip shows a man in a blue and yellow jacket with a pink hat, second clip shows someone with a red jacket, third clip is Chris Klein in costume wearing a grey and yellow jacket with a black ear-warmer/headband…thing).
While those seem to be cases where the incongruity was intentional (or at least not considered important enough to change), most of the film takes excellent care in how the shots are cut and framed. For instance, in introducing Tracy Flick, the camera freeze-frames on Tracy making ridiculously awkward faces to help influence the way you think of her.
These shots reinforce how much you are supposed to dislike her by making it easier to laugh at her. Her actions in the scenes following this freeze-frame are equally ridiculous, but this shot helps prepare you for what is to come. There are also tons of close-ups designed to make you feel uncomfortable, like a close-up of Tracy’s mother licking an envelope while Tracy describes all the great wonderful things her mother does for her, or yet another close-up of a wad of hair being pulled out of the sink right before Mr. McAllister begins his affair with his wife’s best friend.
As I mentioned before, Tracy and Mr. McAllister’s characters are described with near flawlessness within the first four minutes of the film. Establishing shots are some of the most important shots of any film, and this movie starts off with a shot so deceptively simple, that it implies not only how pathetic and trivial the characters lives are before they’re even brought onto the screen, but shows just how boring the town and school really are . Nothing exciting is supposed to happen here. How is this all showcased, you ask? By a simple shot of a field sprinkler.
The fact that so many expectations about a place, the people who live there, and what normally happens to and around them can all be translated through a single shot of a sprinkler (or any other simple establishing shot like this) is power I wish more film-makers would harness.
While the plot of the film is very character driven and revolves strictly around actions committed by one of the few major characters, there are plenty of themes to be explored through these simple human interactions, certainly more than I have room to discuss in detail. One of the most prevalent themes is ethics vs. morals. Ethics as defined by Merriam Webster are a set of moral principles, so acting unethically technically requires you to be acting immorally on more than one front. Many of the characters in this film act unethically only because their actions at the time are singular, so their actions (as perceived by them) are questionably immoral but not necessarily unethical. However, as the audience, we can see the larger picture and begin to realize just how unethical most of the characters are in their own ways. This illustrates just how easy it is to slip into casual, unethical behavior by our own justifications and perspectives.
Lastly, I realize I don’t often discuss acting in my reviews, as I normally am not so wholeheartedly impressed by any particular actor in a film that I go out of my way to mention it. This film is absolutely stolen by Reese Witherspoon, and it would not have been nearly as great without her. She steals the show and makes you hate her annoying attitude, but you still love her because we all knew someone like this in high school and she absolutely nails the part. It is not surprising that her career took off shortly after this film.
This film is wonderfully made, and I absolutely love it. However, I do still sometimes have to stop halfway through and relax for a little while with just how hard it is to like any of the characters in the film. It’s absolutely wonderful that all of the characters are so realistic and have good traits along with the bad, but as a viewer it is sometimes emotionally draining not feeling comfortable rooting for the person who is established by the film as the protagonist. I highly recommend this film, but I do not blame you if you cannot relate to any of the characters.