Unsung Heroes - The Students of "Election"

Posted by julian On 8:00 AM
This is Michael C. from Serious Film  back again to shine a light on a cinematic achievement that has been hidden for too long in the shadows. This week it is a film I've been an evangelist for since it's release over a decade ago: Alexander Payne's Election (1999). Pick Flick!

Is there any setting more misrepresented in movies than high school? Courtrooms, maybe, or hospitals with their staffs four times bigger than anywhere you could actually find. But at least these places use reality as a jumping off point. The majority of movie high schools, with their student bodies straight from central casting and their campuses the size of Ivy League universities, appear to have been fabricated completely to fit the needs of Hollywood producers.

When a movie like Alexander Payne's Election (1999) finally comes along, which rings true in detail after detail, one wonders what they did differently. The success of Payne's film is undoubtedly in large part due to his decision to shoot in a real high school while classes were in session, and to use the actual students of Papillion La Vista High School generously throughout the film. It may seem like a minor decision, but it adds a crucial air of credibility to the movie.

For one thing, they look real high students. It may seem like an obvious point, but it actually makes Election quite a rare specimen. Most movie students look like they're pushing thirty, and dress as if they are on their way to a commercial shoot for Axe body spray. Acting ability aside, the mere act of going through wardrobe and make-up adds a layer of polish that audiences register. In Election, even the more dramatic moments of the story -- Tammy's speech, Mr. McAllister's sabotage --feel less like scripted plot points because the unaffected presence of real students subliminally signals to the viewer that nothing phony is happening.

That realism must also have rubbed off on Broderick and Witherspoon who both deliver performances that stand as career high points. According to the DVD commentary, Payne frequently sent in real students to improvise with his stars. Knowing that their performances were going to be so readily judged against the genuine article must have worked as a safeguard against putting in too many actorly touches. It is especially impressive that Election manages the feat of meshing Witherspoon believably into the mass of ordinary teens, considering she is as glamorous a star as we've got, and Tracy Flick as a role is full of invitations to go over-the-top.

On top of all these benefits, some of the kids are just plain good. Lots of moments that stand out in my memory from Election are the little bits of documentary realism from the students. The kids who ramble through their explanations of morals vs. ethics set the stage perfectly for Tracy and her "Ooh, ooh, call on me!" routine. I also love the boy who delivers that strange cackling heckle when Tammy takes the microphone and the girl who lets loose with a few dance moves when the crowd is chanting Tammy's name. And the kid who ad-libs reasons to Broderick why he needs to retake a test has a naturalism that a lot of pros could learn from.

It's telling that for all its arch filmmaking touches, Election feels more authentic than just about any other high school movies one could name.

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