Absolute classics

4th February 2005 at 00:00
RATING

Good ethical role models *

Unintentionally good civic lessons *****

Reese Witherspoon as monster *****

While compiling this series on school films, I nearly included Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), where supercool Ferris (Matthew Broderick) - outwitting his parents and school principal - plays truant as extravagantly as he can. But I took the day off instead.

Seriously, I wasn't convinced that Ferris shows sufficient schooling to justify its inclusion on the list. He's always bunking off, making the casting of Broderick in Election (1999) so marvellous. As Nebraska civics teacher James McAllister, Broderick plays it as if Ferris has gone from cool to fool in 15 years. Something snaps inside him one day, so he sets out to destroy the over-ambitious, careerist student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). "Reading, writing, revenge" the tag-line promises, and we're not disappointed.

What is it about Flick that McAllister dislikes? Her hand shoots up during every question in class and she is fanatically determined to be elected school president. Perhaps she reminds him of his own shattered dreams.

Whatever the cause, he is determined to bring the zealot down, starting by throwing an alternative candidate's hat into the ring. This leads to a chain of events, culminating in his sacking and the break up of his family.

If you haven't seen Election, then hopefully you won't begrudge me this spoiler. Alexander Payne's genius is that he turns a potentially grim subject into a comedy that knocks spots off all the other high school movies doing the rounds at the end of the 1990s.

Inspired by a true incident, it brilliantly captures some of the absurdity of life in America's education system. Flick, with her preppy dress sense and elitist form of public spiritedness, personifies the idea that society will have neatly divided into winners and losers by the time of graduation or the senior prom. For reasons that remain unclear, McAllister is determined to ensure that the young control freak looks into the abyss of being stuck with the losing side.

Payne overturned expectations when his film emerged from MTV Films much darker, wittier and more insightful than other "yoof" products.

Witherspoon's career-best performance does a lot for the movie. If only she was as likeable as Bueller, perhaps his alter-ego would not feel compelled to destroy her.

Graham Barnfield

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