Reese Witherspoon for president! Election, a comedy from a time when US politics was amusing

Alexander Payne’s spiky and smart 1999 film, with its cast led by Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick, follows a race for high school president in Omaha, Nebraska

Reese Witherspoon may have got her Oscar for Walk the Line but she has never been as iconic as she was in what should be considered the real highlight of her career: Election.

Alexander Payne’s spiky and smart 1999 movie is set at an average American high school in a town where the most defining characteristic is its banality. Nothing extraordinary is supposed to happen in Omaha, Nebraska and, in some ways, nothing did.

The drama in Election is the race for school president but the real war is between well-liked teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) and high-achieving student Tracy Flick (Witherspoon). Armed with “Pick Flick” campaign cupcakes, her Jansport backpack and an unerring belief in her bright, successful future, Tracy’s unopposed pursuit of the presidency is thwarted by Jim when he eggs on Paul (Chris Klein), a sweet but dumb athlete, to run against her in the election. The battle royale is complicated further by the entry of Paul’s sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), whose anarchic “Who cares?” platform promises to dismantle the student government.

The election campaign unfolds in hilarious and bizarre beats – including a wildly funny scene involving a bee sting – and culminates in a vote-stealing scandal that is both shocking and not shocking at the same time.

Election masquerades as a familiar high school comedy, but it is astute and keenly observed. Like Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, it tapped into the now almost-quaint Clintonian era of the 1990s. There was partisanship and sex scandals, but US politics still managed to amuse as well as enrage, when compared with the terrifying hellscape it morphed into.

At the heart of the film is Tracy, the kind of earnest try-hard you just want to see taken down a notch, or three. When she surreptitiously discovers she won the election, the sight of her ecstatic, contorted face is forever captured and amplified in freeze frame. It remains an indelible image in cinema: Tracy, in that moment, is every person you’ve ever met that struck you as just a little too ambitious, just a little too sanctimonious and just a little too annoying.

Tracy is not blameless – she rails against “subversive elements”, she lies and stands in judgment of others. Still, it reveals a lot about our own neuroses and complexes that we pour scorn on ambitious souls like her. Why do we find their unabashed aspirations so grating? Why do we roll our eyes at the person – and it’s always the same person – who volunteers every year to organise the charity morning teas? Especially if they’re a woman?

When you’re laughing at Tracy, Payne’s movie grounds you in Jim’s perspective. You convict her because he convicts her. It’s only later when Jim is revealed to be flawed, manipulative and a love rat that you are forced to ask yourself why you saw Tracy as the antagonist. Rewatching Election now, it’s hard to ignore how those judgments about female ambition have played out in real life. When Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2016, she was compared to Tracy Flick, all grown up. On that note, Witherspoon is set to reprise the role again in an Election sequel directed by Payne, which will follow the adult Tracy Flick as she battles to become the principal of a suburban high school.

While you’re laughing at those silly mechanical seatbelts that seem to be in every car in Omaha, or at Klein’s voiceover delivery of rich kid Paul’s existential crisis, Election will confront you with serious ideas about political systems, predatory behaviour and entitlement. Who gets to decide who gets to rule? Why should anyone have more say than anyone else? This biting black comedy is a microcosm of the questions that still plague institutions of power and those subjected to its inequities. It just does it with a plucky attitude.

  • Election is streaming on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here


Wenlei Ma

The GuardianTramp

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