School elections, along with alcohol, sex and temporary new friends with issues, have traditionally been a great way for sitcom characters to learn life lessons. Usually, one of the main characters winds up running for office, but regardless of who it is, everyone learns that popularity shouldn’t count when it comes to electing a student body president, and that it should wind up being the best person for the job. In real life, at least when I was in school, popularity only played so much of a role – those elected were more or less in the middle of the spectrum. Also, not everyone chose to vote for an actual candidate, instead preferring to nominate someone who technically didn’t exist. (In my day, it was Bart Simpson.)
However, the 1999 movie “Election,” based on the book by Tom Perrotta, gets it right. Matthew Broderick plays a high school civics teacher who loves his job but runs into trouble when he tries, in the words of his antagonist, a student overachiever played by Reese Witherspoon, “to interfere with destiny.” Reese, who earlier had an affair with Matthew’s fellow teacher (Mark Harelik), rubs Matthew the wrong way because she is just so relentless in her quest to succeed. Perhaps because of this, or maybe as another character points out that no one really cares about elections, she is running unopposed for student body president. Still, she intends to campaign her eager little heart out, and while she does not sabotage anyone at first, you get the sense it might only be because she’s guaranteed to win.
However, this is not a movie where the adults have a firmer grasp on “ethics” and “morals,” the difference between which Matthew tries to teach his class. Mark’s character is described as becoming a teacher, “because he never wanted to leave high school,” and we soon realize that this also applies to Matthew. He likes being liked by his students, but every now and then, he gets one that makes him feel, well, inadequate. Dismayed that if Reese wins, they are going to be spending a lot of time together, he enlists an amiable jock (Paul Klein) to run opposite her. At first, Paul is daunted by doing so, but after Matthew gives him a pep talk using easily grasped metaphors like fruit, he gets into the spirit. Unfortunately, Paul’s younger sister (Jessica Campbell) decides to also run, for reasons she does not share with him, but have to do with her former friend going out with Paul. Jessica chooses to run on a platform of indifference and cynicism, and after she promises to abolish elections if she gets elected, soon has the whole school giving her a standing ovation. Surprisingly, this new challenge does not go over well with Reese.
It’s hard not to draw parallels to “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” with Matthew now in the Mr. Rooney role, especially as his personal life begins to unravel as the election progresses. There’s a part where he shows up at school bedraggled, only to be offered a cupcake by Reese, which is reminiscent of the end scene in “Ferris,” where a girl on the school bus offers Mr. Rooney a gummi bear. Eventually, Matthew is forced to leave the school, but if you are expecting this to somehow alter his beliefs, you would be wrong. No one in the movie changes – for the better or for the worse – and since we’re privy to their inner thoughts, we know this for sure. It’s Paul’s character, who remains a genuinely nice guy throughout, who winds up far more satisfied with his life than either Reese or Matthew. The black humor comes from the viewer realizing that the characters themselves don’t grasp that they haven’t changed. Inability to see one’s flaws isn’t a trait confined only to the young or the old here, and if there’s a “message,” it may just be that the ability to see the good in people may far outweigh one’s success in life than either ethics or morals.