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'Election' campaigns on character issues

April 22, 1999
Web posted at: 4:52 p.m. EDT (2052 GMT)

By Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- Reese Witherspoon is proving to be one of the most versatile actresses of her generation. As high-school senior Tracy Flick in the new film "Election," she displays comic timing worthy of a Swiss watch. Little Ms. Flick is simply a girl with a dream. A dream for greater things. Actually, she's sort of a young Eva Peron -- just more focused.

Matthew Broderick plays Jim McAllister, named "teacher of the year" three times in his 12 years at George Washington Carver High. He loves his job. He loves his kids. He's just never come up against anyone with Tracy's blind ambition and is stunned as he watches her claw her way to the top of the school's student government.


Paul Clinton reviews "Election"
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Theatrical preview for "Election"
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On the surface, "Election" may look like yet another teenage coming-of-age movie set in high school. But this film has some witty satire. It may have more appeal for adults, while high school kids still can relate to it, no problem.

Witherspoon's Tracy is the classic overachiever. When this girl sets her sights on a goal, she's like Imelda Marcos at a designer-shoes clearance sale. If anything stands in her way, her face screws up like a kewpie doll sucking on a sour pickle. A school-politics shark, she must move forward, eating anything in her way in order to survive.

Broderick's character, mild-mannered Mr. McAllister, is horrified by her blatant, raw, ruthless tactics to win at any cost. So he plans to put the brakes on her militant campaign to become student-body president. But when he attempts to stop this sharp-toothed predator -- he nearly becomes lunch.

Tracy is running unopposed. For the good of the school and humanity in general, McAllister finds her an opponent. He persuades Paul, an injured and dimwitted football star played by newcomer Chris Klein, to run against her. Then Paul's younger sister Tammy, played by another newcomer, Jessica Campbell, decides to run on a platform of abolishing student government altogether. Tammy feels a bit disenfranchised since she's a lesbian just coming to terms with her sexuality. Naturally all hell breaks lose.

"Election" may be about high school on the surface. But it's really about lurid ambition and the lies we tell ourselves and each other in order to succeed. Duly noted are the personal betrayals that can happen along the way.

Witherspoon and Broderick are exceptional as two people with a minor disagreement that escalates into a major battle over "freedom, justice and the American way." Their war of wills escalates slowly. Both actors pace themselves well as their characters go out of control bit by bit. Eventually McAllister, who stresses ethics in his classroom lectures, gets so caught up in defending his point of view that he becomes as self-absorbed and unethical as Tracy.

Writer-director Alexander Payne loves to skewer societal ethical standards and show how easily they can be manipulated. He's used that theme before. His "Citizen Ruth" is a brilliant but underrated film about a young glue sniffing, pregnant woman (Laura Dern), who becomes a pawn in the abortion debate. Groups on both sides of the issue hit new lows trying to uphold their ideals.

In "Election," Payne has Tammy's parents respond to her rebellion and sexual-identity realizations by sending her to an all-girl Catholic school. Once again, Payne has people doing the wrong things for the "right" reasons.

Payne also uses, to great comedic effect, multiple voice-overs to detail hidden thoughts and desires. Another trick in his bag: the manipulation of Witherspoon's face. The director freezes her expressions at the most embarrassing possible moments -- all the better to show the twisted intentions behind Tracy's pretty facade.

"Election" is rated R.

Official Movie Site: 'Election'
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