Before Hilary and that other guy, before Leslie Knope and Bobby Newport, there was Tracy Flick v. everyone. When Election premiered in 1999 it was not a commercial hit, but garnered awards season attention and has since grown to cult status. Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, the story is adapted from the book by Tom Perotta and was inspired by two events: the 1992 election, in which Perot entered the race and debates at the last minute, and a high school scandal, where faculty rigged a dance election so a pregnant girl wouldn’t be queen.
Election centers on a high school teacher hell bent on keeping an over achiever from winning her student government election. It is told through multiple perspectives however the central arch belongs to the teacher, Jim McAllister, played by Matthew Broderick. It’s an interesting script to look at, not just because of the currently election but also its commentary on how women are treated in the media.
Protagonist: Jim McAllister
Want: Paul beats Tracy in the election.
Need: To not be judgmental and moralistic
Antagonist: Tracy Flick (personal)
PreExisting Life: Mr. McAllister loves his life and job, teaching at a high school. He and his wife are best friends with Dave (another teacher) and his wife, Linda. Dave begins an affair with student, Tracy Flick, and tells McAllister. When the school finds out, Dave is fired. McAllister doesn’t blame Tracy as he sees her as naive but he still doesn’t like her or the fact that she wasn’t punished in any way.
Inciting Incident: Tracy is running for student government president. She goes to give McAllister the stack of required signatures to start your campaign. When he appears to blow her off, Tracy tells McAllister that she wants their working relationship in student government to be “harmonious and productive,” this freaks out McAllister who feels as though Tracy is making a move on him.
First Act Decision: Unable to sleep, McAllister watches some high school themed porn and remembers Paul Metzler, football team star who broke his leg and is looking for a direction in life. Paul is popular and McAllister realizes he has the perfect candidate to run against Tracy. The next day, McAllister convinces Paul to run for class president.
Reversal: Paul’s younger sister Tammy is in love with her best friend, Lisa. When Lisa rejects Tammy and wants to prove she’s heterosexual, and immediately begins dating Paul. A heartbroken Tammy enters the presidential race, getting her signatures in just under the wire.
Midpoint: At home, McAllister is helping out Dave’s wife Linda with running errands and home maintenance. The two become good friends and he’s definitely attracted to her. He jokingly suggests they get a room at a motel, but Linda rejects him. McAllister has sex with his wife that night and imagines first that it is Linda, which gives him energy, and then than it’s Tracy, and the sex becomes incredibly aggressive and power-hungry.
Reversal #2: All the students give their speeches in front of the student body. Tracy’s is traditional and too grand for high school. Paul’s is unintelligible. Tammy gives a roaring speech that is anti-government and revs up the students. She is immediately the students’ favorite, not Paul. She is expelled but the damage is done.
False Climax / Low Point: Tracy’s frustrations boil over and she destroys Paul’s posters late at school one night. McAllister is brought in to find the guilty party and is quietly happy to lord it over Tracy’s head, thinking he has the one up on her, referencing the affair with Dave. Tammy saves Tracy, taking the blame for the poster destruction but McAllister doesn’t let it spoil his good mood, Linda and McAllister have slept together and plan to meet up again. But Linda is a no-show, instead telling McAllister’s wife everything, so she kicks him out of the house.
3rd Act Decision: McAllister is miserable the day of the election. Everyone casts their votes and after a student makes an independent count, it appears Tracy won by a single vote. McAllister makes his own independent count and comes to the same conclusion, but when he sees Tracy outside celebrating (having a mole who told her she’s won) he decides to throw out two votes, so Paul has won the election.
Climax: Paul feels as though he has purpose, Tracy is distraught, and Tammy has been expelled and thrilled to be going to an all-girls Catholic school. McAllister returns to work, resolved with new energy but the janitor found the votes and turned McAllister in. He’s forced to resign.
Resolution: His reputation ruined in town, McAllister moves to New York and gives tour at the Natural History Museum. He travels to DC on vacation and upon seeing Tracy getting into a limo with an older Nebraska senator. McAllister becomes enraged, throws a milkshake at the limo, and then runs away, a coward.
I love love love this movie and I also highly recommend that everyone read this book. It’s fantastic and the choices the writers and director make to tell a cinematic adaptation are so smart. This film is set in a small Nebraska town. In the book, it’s New Jersey. In the film, Tracy is lonely and definitely is in love with the version of Dave she creates in her mind, but her teacher definitely uses her isolation to manipulate her. When they are seen having sex for the first time, Tracy is led into the room by Dave her head looking down at the ground. In the book, the impression is given that she is more in control of her actions, but it can be interpreted either way. She definitely appears more in touch with her sexuality. The biggest change from book to film though is Lisa. Tammy’s best friend and Paul’s girlfriend plays a much larger role in the book. She’s a typical teenager but upon driving Paul’s election campaign, she finds a real interest and passion for politics. It’s actually disappointing that what’s left of her character in the movie is someone whose every decision is a sexual game with no real agency for herself.
Even when I saw this movie when I was in high school, I identified with Tracy. I know you’re not supposed to, and in truth, my personality is more likely in line with the hypocritical and judgmental McAllister, but I have always admired people who can get up at the crack of dawn and work well past sundown. I know that is actually terrible for your body, but sometimes I wish I had that will power. I did have a similar ambitious attitude that others in high school rejected because, like Tracy, I wasn’t “smiley” and putting on airs. This movie definitely wants Tracy to be grating, but Payne also wants you to know that ultimately, even if she wasn’t 100% naive about what went down with Dave, McAllister is WRONG. He might be charismatic and everyone’s favorite but he’s a jerk in the end.
One more note about the structure of this film. It could be argued that the milkshake-limo scene is the climax, but I will argue that it is the resolution. If it were the milkshake, then the false climax is his throwing out the votes and the low point is when he is caught. It’s a solid argument, it’s simply not as helpful from an analytical standpoint to study because then this film, much like the comedy The Hangover, ends up not really having a third act. Since ultimately McAllister doesn’t change, he simply gets angrier, either can be viewed as the climax. I would argue that the low point is getting kicked out of the house because it has a clear connection to the at SUPER TERRIBLE moment where McAllister imagines sleeping with Linda and then Tracy (even before discussions of rape in media were discussed more often, this moment always made me incredibly uncomfortable and I always hated that others found it funny. It’s really fucking dark). Whatever the midpoint is, finding it will almost always tell you what the correct Low Point is. It’s the best trick to look for in breaking down a screenplay.
Well, I have to read up on the bajillion propositions on the California ballot tomorrow morning. Happy Writing and Voting everyone!