Directed and cowritten by Alexander Payne

Starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon



This seems to be a good season for unexpected pleasures, by which I mean worthwhile films that will die at the box office, and 'Election' is one of them. It begins, almost too conventionally, as the story of the very, very driven Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), everybody's nightmare of the high school senior whose life is built on knowing everything first, and making sure everyone's aware of it. She's running unopposed for Student Council President, an office only she could possibly want, but she wants it almost more than life itself, and so has mounted a campaign that rivals Bill Clinton's.

But her history teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), is quietly offended enough by her simpering goodyness that he persuades Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a not-too-bright football star to run against her. Simple enough so far. But there's more, much more, to come. For one thing, Tracy has already had an affair with Broderick's best friend, also a teacher, who has resigned rather than face jail. For another, Paul's sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who is very busy exploring her budding lesbian sexuality, decides to run against both of them. For yet another, McAllister tries to have an affair with his friend's now-ex-wife, only to have that blow up in his face, and force him to confront the end of his own marriage as well.

So what makes it anything more than a sad human-condition exercise? Because what makes it work is that it is a comedy, a sly and perceptive comedy, with a marvelously ironic view of life and school, and many laugh-out-loud lines and moments. It keeps taking us in unexpected directions, so that when we think we've figured it out it just makes a right-angle turn and points us in a new direction.

Like 'The Simpsons,' it also has some hidden treasures, like the fact that the school, in lily-white Omaha, is named George Washington Carver High School. Unfortunately the teams don't call themselves the Peanuts (they're the Wolverines), but the unspoken nudge is there for those who get it.

The film was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, who knows how to get the most from a scene and then leave it just when its point is made. He obviously doesn't believe in hanging around in order to show off his technique, and so the film keeps moving ahead, just out of our reach, and we're all the better for it.