I squirmed watching Election in the late spring of 1999. As sharp as a rapier and in some ways Alexander Payne’s most satisfying film, I understand why it unnerves Maureen O’Connor experiencing it anew in election year 2016:
When I watched the movie in previous years, I responded to the comedic value of Reese Witherspoon’s tightly wound and grimly crazed performance. It wasn’t until this year that I picked up on the brief, but heartbreaking, moments depicting the idealistic teenager’s wounded confusion when she does everything she is supposed to do, but discovers that everyone hates her anyway.
My friend Ryan Maffei, who posted O’Connor’s article on Facebook, tolerated my posts. Below are expanded and revised notes:
1. Payne’s shifting points of views gets him off the hook. Study my screen grab. Note the expressions on the boys. Are we supposed to regard Tracy with their bored contempt? She knows the answers and they don’t. The scene, however, is refracted through Mr. McAllister’s point of view; it’s clear his own boredom with her smarts borders on contempt. While Payne is just smart enough to let the audience know that McCallister’s contempt has a sexual undertone, it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to laugh at what a martinet she imagines her to be in bed or at the quasi-pedophile creep for imagining she’s a martinet in bed.
2. As usual with Payne he has no fucking clue what to do with women: think Kathy Bates in About Schmidt made into a cartoon because she’s fat and horny. But what does Tracy do wrong besides lust for power for its own sake? This is hardly the most mortal of sins. She played by the rules of power that guys like McCallister wrote — and he wants to change them! That’s why she’s sympathetic.
3. Weak for snark but not yet succumbing as he would in About Schmidt and Nebraska, Election is ambiguous Tracy Flick. In a review I wrote for my college paper, I mentioned how moving the scene is where she breaks down in her room after losing the election: her mom comforting her, Tracy devastated that what she’s been taught has failed her. Tracy may or may not be Poppy Bush or a sociopath, but Chris Klein is the dumbfuck manipulated into running.
4. I like(d) Election in part because it can’t control what it unleashes: Thanks to Reese Witherspoon, Tracy Flick is the stereotype that’s humanized by the end of the story while Matthew Broderick is the obsessive teacher we all recognize who took pettiness to, yeah, sociopathic levels. These days the most recognizable type is the little Torquemada of a student government aide who insists he counted all the ballots — and he’s right. He played by the rules that adults made, and his adult teacher wants to change them.
5. Tracy’s a hard worker. I don’t doubt she’ll be a good president based on the standards of high school SGA presidents.
6. No one emerges sympathetic, but it doesn’t mean it has villains; everyone has his or her reasons.
7. I want to watch it again.