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Film / Election

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Pick Flick!

"You can't interfere with destiny, that's why it's destiny. And if you try to interfere, the same thing's just going to happen anyway, and you'll just suffer."
Tracy Flick

Election is a 1999 American satirical teen dramedy film adapted from Tom Perrotta's 1998 novel of the same name, directed and co-written by Alexander Payne and starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein, and Jessica Campbell.

In suburban Omaha, overachieving high school senior Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) is running unopposed for Student Council President. This draws the ire of history and civics teacher Jim McAllister (Broderick), who hates Tracy's attitude and feels that the students should have a choice — any choice — in the election. There's also the fact that McAllister is holding a massive grudge against Tracy for engaging in a sexual relationship with his best friend and fellow teacher Dave Novotny, which wound up getting him fired and destroying his marriage — while Tracy (with her mother's help) got the school to cover up the entire incident to protect her reputation.

To foil Tracy's dreams of using an election victory as a springboard for her future, McAllister recruits injured star football player Paul Metzler (Klein) to run against Tracy. This inspires Paul's lesbian sister Tammy (Campbell) to run as well, in order to get revenge upon Paul for dating Tammy's ex-girlfriend (who dumped Tammy after deciding that she wasn't a lesbian after all). Meanwhile, McAllister, feeling a lack of passion in his love life (and fearing his own sexual interest in Tracy), sleeps with Novotny's ex-wife. All of which culminates in the mother of all bad days, as these various trains inevitably crash into each other.

While it earned critical raves, the film had a mediocre reception at the box office, due to the studio screwing up its marketing and portraying it as a straight-up teen comedy as opposed to a drama with Black Comedy overtones — presumably an effort to cash in on the success of American Pie (the fact that Chris Klein is in both films adds a bit of credence to that theory), which came out earlier that year. However, it has come to be embraced as a Cult Classic in the years since its release.

In 2022, Perotta wrote a sequel, Tracy Flick Can't Win, featuring the titular character as an assistant principal in a New Jersey high school... and not at all happy about where life has taken her. A film sequel based on the new book is being developed for Paramount+, with Witherspoon and Payne set to return in their roles.

Not to be confused with the 2005 film Election.


  • Absurdly Powerful Student Council: Deconstructed. The student council is ultimately revealed at the end of the film as being highly dysfunctional, to the point that Tracy can't get anything accomplished during her tenure as President. Furthermore, the film pretty much establishes that the whole thing is one glorified popularity contest. This is why Mr. McAllister selects Paul to run against Tracy since, as one of the most popular kids at school, more kids in theory will vote for him over Tracy. Furthermore, Tammy's entire campaign platform is based upon the idea of dissolving the student council, as she openly acknowledges that it's a huge fraud and a waste of time for everyone at school.
  • Actor Allusion: Five minutes into the film we see McAllister throwing questions to the class and asking "Anybody?", an allusion to Matthew Broderick's best-known role in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
  • Academic Alpha Bitch: Tracy is perhaps the ultimate example as she's smart and ambitious, but also selfish and callous, willing to win the election at all costs. When she sees Tammy's list of signatures supporting her candidacy, she complains that half the students are nobodies.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Tracy, actually; as author Tom Perrotta noted, in the book she is portrayed as far more of a Fille Fatale and less vulnerable.
  • Age-Inappropriate Dress: Tracy is dressed more like president of the PTA than a high school student. This is cleverly inverted when Tracy is portrayed as seen in a more child-like lens when she's seduced by her teacher.
  • All Elections Are Serious Business: A student council election at a high school dragging up sordid love affairs and past dirt, all for the sake of vengeance. Notably, only Tracy and McAllister treat it as such (because they are the aforementioned vengeance-seekers) while the other two candidates really don't care (one is in the race because he was asked to, the other is actually protesting the whole thing).
  • The Alleged Car: Although it is in reasonable condition, Mr. McAllister drives a pretty crappy early 90s Ford Festiva compact car (a rebadged Korean-built Kia Pride), a minute car by American standards. Presumably this was chosen deliberately, in the DVD commentary Alexander Payne says "Ford Festiva, the car of an impotent man."
  • Almighty Janitor: Mr. McAllister makes the big mistake of unknowingly pissing off the school janitor by dropping a box of chow mein on the floor in an absent-minded attempt at cleaning up the staff room. It bites him in the ass when the janitor finds the thrown-out ballots in the trash bin and reveals to the principal that he had rigged the election.
  • Arc Symbol: Pepsi and Coke logos are seen all over the place. Garbage cans are also visible and factor into the story in a variety of ways.
  • Arc Words: A large part of the satire comes from the frequent mention of "morals" and "ethics" and the lack of either on display.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: At least by his own recollection, Jim was an idealistic teacher who truly cared about touching students' lives, and at the start of the film he urges his students and Dave to be moral as well as ethical people. The movie shows him becoming none of those things.
  • Big Man on Campus: Paul is a sports star at his high school; he gets lots of votes in the election just because he's popular.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Right before Paul is called to the principal's office to learn that he actually lost the election, his Spanish class is conjugating the verb for "to lose".
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • McAllister rebuilds his life and finds a new love, but must deal with the fact that Tracy has not only gone on to great things as a congressman's aide, but is still up to her old tricks of seducing older men. Though depending on how you interpret the characters it may actually range from Happy to Downer.
    • Tracy wins the election and becomes student council president, only to find that the job is practically meaningless and it doesn't make her any more popular with the students. When she goes on to college she's still a solitary student, ignored by her peers, and she realizes that she'll always be alone even though there is the implication that her overachieving ways may eventually take Tracy to high places.
  • Brainless Beauty: Paul is a widely admired Big Man on Campus. He's also a total himbo.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Paul's last line, spoken directly into the camera: "Or maybe I'd be dead."
  • Brick Joke: In the final scene, McAllister encounters another eager young student willing to answer a question. As with Tracy, he's loath to call upon her.
  • College Is "High School, Part 2": The college Tracy enters is this, much to her anger. She never finds anybody she could consider an academic peer because everybody else is too busy pretending they're in Animal House.
  • Condescending Compassion: Early on Tracy is heard in a voiceover saying, essentially, that she feels sorry for Mr. McAllister for being a loser jealous of people like her.
  • Cool Loser: Tammy. Justified, as it eventually became part of her plan.
  • Cute and Psycho: Tracy is portrayed as this, particularly by Mr. McAllister.
  • Dean Bitterman: The principal completely overreacts to Tammy's candidacy speech: he wants to punish her for running what is a legitimate protest campaign against Student Council.
  • Decided by One Vote: Ironically, the deciding vote comes from Paul, he votes for Tracy because he doesn't know if voting for himself would be the right thing.
  • Description Cut: After Paul "wins" the election:
    McAllister: Don't worry about Tracy. She'll be fine.
    (cut to Tracy sobbing inconsolably)
  • Dork Horse Candidate: Tammy is viewed at this at first; several students in the bleachers mock her before she starts her speech.
  • Dumb Jock: Paul is a former football star of average intelligence at best. In one of his introductory scenes Mr. McAllister tries to convince him to run against Tracy with an analogy that even if you like apples, having oranges on offer too gives you the chance to make an informed choice. His response:
    Paul: I also like bananas.
  • Education Mama: Tracy's mother is singlemindedly devoted to her daughter's success.
  • Extracurricular Enthusiast: In addition to running for student body president, Tracy has a title role in the school musical, an anchor spot on the journalism club, and is on the yearbook staff. She is not shy about highlighting any of these things.
  • False Confession: Tammy lies and says that she tore down Paul's posters, evidently to get expelled from the school and therefore distanced from the people she grew to hate.
  • Fille Fatale: Jim seems to see Tracy as a Femme Fatale in the making, and the viewer largely sees her through his narration.
  • Flyover Country: Although Alexander Payne seems to be proud of his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska — making it the setting for three of his films, including this one — he certainly doesn't try to make it look glamourous.
  • Foil: Jim and Tracy are foils to one another. In particular, both moralize about ethics and right and wrong behavior, while falling on the wrong side more than they are willing to acknowledge.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Despite being disqualified, Tammy won the election. Tracy was the runner up.
  • "Friends" Rent Control: Averted: when Jim moves to New York City he has to pay $1550 a month (plus utilities) for a tiny little cramped basement apartment with the bed, bath and kitchen units stuffed into one little room.
  • Go-Getter Girl: Hoo boy, is Tracy ever. The trope's page image is a scene from the film of her presiding over a table filled with about a hundred cupcakes, each one individually hand-decorated with the message "Pick Flick" in icing.
  • Good Is Dumb: Paul, the most sympathetic and decent character in the film, is an absolute moron.
  • Graceful Loser: Paul takes his defeat in stride, caring even less than Tammy and still being the most popular kid in school.
  • Grass Is Greener: How Mr. McAllister, possibly to the point of delusion, thinks of his "exciting" new life in New York compared to his old life in Omaha, although he is now living in a ridiculous small apartment instead of a house and has a more humble job as a museum tour guide, probably earning less with a much higher cost of living.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Tracy is a sweet but borderline psychotic overachiever who tears down Paul's posters in a fit of rage, Paul is a well-intentioned but fairly clueless guy who's only running because he was told to by his teacher, Tammy is only in the race to get revenge against Paul and Lisa, and Mr. McAllister cheats on his wife and rigs the ballots to deny Tracy the victory.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: Despite everything you might have been told, life is not a meritocracy. Working harder than anyone else doesn't mean you can't be undermined by forces outside of your control.
  • Humiliation Conga: Mr McAllister's story arc is dedicated to heaping more and more humiliation and failure on him at an ever-increasing speed, especially in the film's final act. He does improve his lot in life a bit by the conclusion, but the way he is presented still makes him look like something of a Butt-Monkey.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Jim does not live up to his civic ideals, as he manipulates the student council election in increasingly unethical ways. There are subtle hints of this early on: He makes a big presentation to Paul about the dangers of candidates running unopposed, but he doesn't mind that the vice presidential candidate has no opponent, and.
    • Tracy has her moments. At one point she speaks earnestly about wanting to be a voice for students who are struggling at school...only to dismiss the supporters of Paul and Tammy's campaigns as losers and nobodies.
  • I'm a Man; I Can't Help It: Mr McAllister sees his friend Dave as absolutely blameless in cheating on his wife: he blames Tracy for seducing him. Dave himself sees it as his being hopelessly in love with her.
  • Immediate Self-Contradiction: The film has a lot of voiceovers, many of which are accompanied by cuts showing that the narrator isn't being totally honest.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Why Lisa stops being friends with Tammy. She was straight (and only "experimenting") while Tammy was lesbian and thought the two of them were in love.
  • Irrational Hatred: Whilst Tracy does have her negative side, McAllister takes his dislike for her way too far. He views her as an evil ambitious schemer rather than an overachieving student trying to prevent her from becoming Student President even though it's really not that big of a position in the wider picture. It's strongly implied he's like this because he's become so frustrated with his own life he seeks to make himself feel better by sabotaging someone else's, along with the affair he later takes part in.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Lisa, as it's strongly implied she dates Paul to hurt Tammy and later a football player to hurt Paul.
    • Tracy is able to to get into Georgetown, and later becomes a senator's aide that she is implied to be having an affair with. However, she has to endure the scorn of everyone around her for her holier-than-thou attitude. Not to mention McAllister really having it in for her.
    • Tracy in a more specific example. After tearing down Paul's posters she's heading for an expelling, derailing all her ambitions at once. That particular bullet misses her completely.
    • Downplayed with Dave. He escapes going to jail for statutory rape nor is stated to have been made to register as a sex offender. But he loses his wife and son, is fired from his job and all but forbidden from ever getting another teaching job due to his behavior, loses his home and everything he owns in the divorce, has to move back to Milwaukee to live with his parents and ends up in a dead-end job tagging items in a hardware store, clearly miserable and very likely to remain in that position for the rest of his life.
  • Lonely at the Top: One interpretation of Tracy. Dave tells her as much when they're dating, albeit in the process of grooming her.
  • Lovable Jock: Paul is a genuinely kind-hearted person who doesn't say or do a single unkind thing throughout the film. He's almost too nice to be real. He does hurt his sister pain by dating and humping her former soulmate Lisa, but due to his sheer naivete he is completely unaware of this, or that Lisa is doing it to get back at Tammy.
  • Male Gaze: Used intentionally when Jim is checking out Linda, to highlight his unreliable narration about getting to know her better.
  • Mama Bear: Tracy's mother is instrumental in getting Dave fired once she finds out about him and Tracy.
  • Manchild: The most generous interpretation of Dave. McAllister even describes him as someone who went into teaching because he never wanted to leave high school to begin with. Throughout his affair with Tracy, he genuinely can't see anything wrong with his behavior and honestly thinks he and Tracy are an epic love affair rather than a grown man preying on a naive and lonely teen who looked to him as a father figure.
  • Manipulative Bastard: McAllister manipulates Paul throughout the film, but he's doing it to work Tracy over as well.
  • Nominated as a Prank: McAllister goads Dumb Jock Paul Metzler into running for Student Body President just to fuck with Tracy Flick, who is running unopposed, as Jim hates Tracy and blames her for a teacher-student affair that ruined his best friend's career. Shortly after, Paul's sister Tammy decides to run for Student Body President - on a platform of abolishing the position - just to fuck with Paul, who she blames for supposedly turning her ex-girlfriend straight.
  • Not So Above It All: Tracy, in her portion of the film's narration, rants and raves against the rich kids of the school and how working hard and playing by the rules gives her moral superiority, all before engaging in blatant vandalism by destroying Paul's posters, an act she only gets away with because someone else (Tammy) would rather take credit for the crime. She also regularly shows that she's not as mature as she'd like to come across, still viewing her relationship with Dave like it was a fairy tale romance rather than a grown man abusing his position and trust in the worst way possible.
  • One-Word Title: Election, because of the Student Council President election that's the basis of the plot.
  • Passing Notes in Class: Tammy is shown passing Lisa a dramatic, effusive love note in class when they are still together.
  • Pick on Someone Your Own Size: McAllister finds someone to run against Tracy for the sheer sake of making it more difficult for her to win.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Paul is not particularly bright, but as Jim points out, he's one of the most popular students in the school, and the auditorium cheers even before he begins his speech.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Winning Class President for Tracy, since it's a meaningless position, and she is not very well liked for it anyways.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Tracy doesn't plan to tear down the campaign posters; she does it in a fit of frustration after accidentally tearing hers.
  • Revised Ending: The original ending has Jim working at a car dealership in town having generally recovered from his pariahdom. Tracy shows up to pick up a new car the day before she goes off to college, confronts McAllister and asks him why he did it. After Mr. McAllister apologizes, Tracy confesses to being scared about going off to college, but McAllister reassures her that she'll be okay and signs her yearbook. This is taken from the book's ending.
  • Rousing Speech: Tammy gives one during the debate about how meaningless student government is and how the first thing she'd do upon being elected Student Council President is to dismantle the system so that the students wouldn't have to sit through these damn speeches and debates. Her speech is by far the most popular of the three, and it's implied that she would've won the election in a landslide had she not been disqualified after she (falsely) confessed to tearing down Paul's campaign posters.
  • Self-Made Man: Tracy views herself as one; one of her main Berserk Buttons is seeing people get ahead based on popularity or money or simply not working for it as much as she personally believes they should. It's shown that her perspective is limited and alienating.
  • Serious Business: The central election. Both Tracy and Jim treat it as a pivotal moment in Tracy's life, something that has the potential to shape her future. To everyone else, the election is basically meaningless and the role comes with almost no actual power or influence and which was never going to make much of a difference to her life either way.
  • Smug Smiler: A Running Gag is that on several occasions, whenever McAllister sees Tracy the camera will freeze on a shot of her with a very smug look on her face.
  • Social Climber: Tracy is primarily the Snob subtype, showing disdain both for the people with money and connections who are more successful than her and the "burnouts" who are less successful. Especially toward the end she shows shades of the Backstabber variety as well. Notably, she openly identifies as one and believes that it is a good thing, that she is simply overcoming challenges.
  • Something Else Also Rises: Jim pursues an affair with Linda. While helping her with errands around the house and checking her out, he is shown holding a wine bottle at crotch level and pulling out the cork.
  • Stepford Smiler: Tracy, especially in Mr. McAllister's view, the way she can go from sweet to borderline psychotic. In several scenes, she flicks on her smile like a light. It's implied that there's something going on under the surface, though Tracy isn't aware of it.
  • Stock Footage: Used in an obvious way when Mr. McAllister moves to New York, blown-up 16mm footage from the 1960s or 1970s is spliced in as a little montage. Also, feeling elated after starting a fling with Linda, he imagines himself driving a Jaguar E-Type convertible in a classic Italian film, with old-style rear projection behind him. Also used in the scene where Tracy is driving her car at night after tearing up all the posters.
  • Student Council President: The film revolves around an election for this.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Frequently. Comes with the territory of everyone being an Unreliable Narrator.
    Tracy: (discussing her relationship with Dave) Since I grew up without a dad, you might assume, psychologically, I was looking for a father figure. But that had nothing to do with it at all. It was just that Dave was so strong, and he made me feel so safe and protected.
    Tammy: It's not like I'm a lesbian or anything. I'm attracted to the person. It's just that all the people I've ever been attracted to happen to be girls.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: After Tracy gets accepted to Georgetown, she expects that she'll easily make friends there under the assumption that all of the students will be just as ambitious and likeminded as her. Instead, she finds that most of them are just privileged rich kids who got there because of their family connections and she's just as alone there as she was at Carver.. She also imagines getting elected head of the student council will give her considerable influence and authority only to find out the council is completely dysfunctional making it impossible for her to achieve anything, and no one else, not even the people on it, take it seriously.
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: Tracy believes Jim's vendetta against her is driven by this, viewing herself as the "tall poppy" that gets cut down. She is not especially kind about this, and exactly how correct she is about this is left open to interpretation, but the film's events suggest she's not entirely wrong.
    Tracy: I feel sorry for Mr. McAllister. I mean, anyone whos stuck in the same little room, wearing the same stupid clothes, saying the exact same things year after year for all of his life, while his students go on to good colleges and move to big cities and do great things and make loads of money hes gotta be at least a little jealous. Its like my mom says, the weak are always trying to sabotage the strong.
  • Teacher's Pet: Tracy certainly tries to be one of these, but the teachers we see interact with her hate and/or take advantage of her.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: Dave Novotny, Tracy's geometry teacher, comes on to her after a pizza party for the yearbook, and they begin a relationship both claim to view as this. They got busted, and Dave lost his job and his wife. Fortunately for Tracy's reputation, the whole thing was kept under wraps.
  • Technician Versus Performer: Tracy, who does everything by the book and runs her campaign in Crazy-Prepared fashion, is the Technician. Paul and Tammy rely on their popularity and anti-authoritarian attitude and Rousing Speech. The outcome is less one-sided than some applications of this trope. Paul and Tammy get far more cheers than Tracy, but Tracy gets roughly half of the votes, although it's suggested Tammy might have gotten more had she not been expelled.
  • Theme Music Power-Up: When Tracy gets really pissed, you'll know it.
  • Unishment: Tammy's parents try to discipline her by sending her to Catholic school (implied to be all-girl), although that's exactly where she wants to go.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Most of the voiceovers, particularly those of Jim, Tracy and Paul, are heavily skewed toward the characters' own perceptions and worldview, sometimes to the point of Suspiciously Specific Denial as above.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Paul isn't the brightest guy, and so he is very easy to manipulate. Jim convinces him to run for election to sabotage Tracy, while Lisa hooks up with him to hurt Tammy.
  • Villain Protagonist: Mr. McAllister. Lying, election fraud, adultery, Machiavellian use of Paul... all whilst enacting his plan to bring down the target of his spite. Not really a boy scout.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Although Tracy isn't very good at controlling her emotions anyway, she has one in the scene where she snaps and tears down all Paul's posters, ending up with bloody hands. And also after she "loses" the election, when she gets home she cries her eyes out.
  • Visual Pun:
    • After discussing the "fruits" of democracy with Mr. M, there is a bowl of the discussed fruits on Paul's kitchen counter.
    • Also Tracy's viewpoints on Coca-Cola staying #1 because of advertising. While drinking a Pepsi, Mr. McCallister is inspired to pick Paul to run against her. Doubles as a Brick Joke when at the end of the film, McAllister throws a Pepsi cup at the limo Tracy is riding in.
  • Vote Early, Vote Often: Inverted, but with the same effect. Mr. McAllister throws two votes for Tracy into the garbage in order to deny her the victory.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue:
    • Tammy gets sent to Catholic school after covering for Tracy by falsely confessing to tearing down the posters. She finds that it's not nearly as strict as expected and spends most of her time getting stoned in the bathroom. She also meets her new girlfriend Jennifer.
    • Tracy is instated as student council president after Mr. McAllister's fraud is exposed. Unfortunately for Tracy, everyone on Student Council hates her (and each other in general), meaning that Tracy's tenure is a miserable experience all around. After graduation, she attends Georgetown University and continues to find herself alone, surrounded by people she considers to be slackers and underachievers who get by on their parents' money. She later becomes a Congressional aide, with it strongly implied that she is having a sexual relationship with the older man.
    • Paul recovers from his injury, rejoins the team, becomes homecoming king and prom king, and goes on to play football for the University of Nebraska. He wonders where his life would have gone had he won the election, but concludes that he'shappy where he is.
    • Mr. McAllister is forced to resign after getting caught rigging the student council election and his wife divorces him for cheating on her. And since the scandal happened on a slow news day, the whole thing is picked up by the national media and McAllister becomes the town pariah. He ultimately moves to New York City where he lives in a tiny yet expensive apartment and manages to land a job working as a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History. This gives him a chance to teach again and he starts dating a co-worker named Gillian.
    • Dave is working a dead-end job stamping price tags at a hardware store.
  • You Are What You Hate: Jim criticizes Dave for sleeping with a student, but he toes that line himself. He comes up with the idea to recruit Paul while watching porn role-playing a football player and a student, and he has explicit, extended fantasies about Tracy while having sex with his wife.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Invoked by Tracy in her Opening Monologue.