A Shot Across the Bow
The opening volley in an impending generational war has just been shot, and it’s called Election.
The first tough, cranky, pragmatic, independent Generation Xers are gonna start hitting 40 in the next couple of years, and rearing up behind them are the Millennials, the first batch of which are the high-school class of 2000. These kids are, as a group, pleasant, cheerful, helpful, ambitious, and community-oriented. These are the kids who — get this — like wearing uniforms to school, because it’s more fair and less distracting when everyone wears the same clothes. I predict polls in the wake of the Littleton incident will find a majority of these kids favor metal detectors and armed guards in school, for, you know, everyone’s protection. They are — in the words of William Strauss and Neil Howe, whose books Generations and The Fourth Turning I’ve mentioned before — scoutlike, as in Boy and Girl Scouts.
Matthew Broderick (Godzilla) will probably forever personify the quintessential Xer, thanks to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It’s at first tempting to say that Jim McAllister, the teacher he plays in Election, is nothing like Ferris: His bad haircut is graying at the temples; he’s kinda chunky where Ferris was sleek; and, with a wardrobe consisting of lots of bad ties and too many short-sleeved dress shirts (a contradiction in terms, as far as I’m concerned), he’s lost Ferris’s sense of style. But Mr. McAllister is the most popular teacher at Omaha’s Carver High School. Named Teacher of the Year three years running, he’s the cool teach who cheers on the football team and gets involved in lots of school activities with the kids. He says that a fellow teacher probably only became a teacher because he “never wanted to leave high school,” but we suspect that’s true of McAllister as well.
What makes McAllister as much an Xer as Ferris was is this: He can’t stomach the thought that perky senior Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, from Pleasantville) is running unopposed for class president of Carver High. Millennial Tracy is, in diametric opposition to the image of Xer as slacker, the school’s most gung-ho student: she’s on the yearbook staff, she’s a member of the student council, she’s pictured in the yearbook with more clubs than anyone else. And, according to jock superstar Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), she’s “super nice.”
“Who knew how high Tracy would climb,” McAllister addresses the audience in voiceover. “Who knew how many people would suffer. I had to stop her… Now.” So McAllister convinces Paul — who’s dumb as a post but extremely sweet, personable, and popular — to run for class president himself.
This isn’t a good versus evil story — it’s not a “What if you could go back and kill Hitler as a child?”-type dilemma. Tracy’s not actually a bad person — her one bad act is unpremeditated and motivated strictly by frustration. “Ethical conduct is the most important thing,” Tracy tells the audience, and she really believes that. No, it’s only in McAllister’s head that she’s dangerous, and as a fellow misanthropic Xer, I see his point — Tracy is annoyingly eager, determined, and devoted to her school to the point of self-sacrifice. Xer Ferris was a hero to his schoolmates because of his selfishness and dedication to showing himself a good time; Millennial Tracy is a hero to her schoolmates for all she does for them, to make their school a better place. And I bet we’ll see a generational divide in the audience’s perception of Election‘s characters, too: Over 25s will see McAllister (despite his own unethical behavior) as the hero and Tracy as the villain; under 16s will assign Tracy the hero’s role and McAllister the villain’s.
Election is wickedly funny stuff, but what you as the viewer find funny is gonna be hugely dependent on whether you’re still worrying about homework and whom to invite to the prom. Election is decidedly not the latest in the recent slew of teen movies — it’s Generation X’s first sucker punch at the irritating kids snapping at our heels.