Judge Jennifer Malkowski's last campaign win was for the vice presidency of the sci-fi club in high school. Sigh.
"Even in high school, it's politics as usual."
In a year that got America excited about politics like never before, filmmaker Caroline Suh brings us this documentary about the cut-throat race for the Presidency…of Stuyvesant High School in New York. While the small-time politics shown here have thought-provoking parallels to those on the national stage, the Obama/McCain race is a tough act to follow…
Facts of the Case
At New York City's most competitive public high school, the race for Student Union president is tight. Whether motivated by civic duty or hunting for impressive lines on their college applications, four candidates (with their running mates) vie for the position.
Mike is already a hard-working S.U. member and his cocky smile conveys his certainty that he's got this race in the bag. Already overloaded with extra-curricular activities, Hannah hopes to cram the S.U. presidency into her schedule. Eccentric George already has lots of S.U. experience—and lots of ideas about how to implant subconscious suggestions into the minds of his potential voters. And dark horse Alex thinks he might have a shot, if he can even get the word out that he's running.
In some ways, 2008 was a great year for a documentary look at a high school election. Between the ever-mounting pressures put on college-bound high schoolers and the exhilaration of the U.S. Presidential race, there is plenty in the story of Frontrunners that feels deeply relevant. In addition to being topical, director Caroline Suh also does a great job extracting real political insight from this seemingly trivial campaign. Many of the big questions that plague the pundits and the candidates in grown-up elections are already gestating at the high school level:
• Do voters care more about experience or personality?
• Are debates won with poise and maturity, or by dishing out low blows? Stuyvesant has its own presidential debate, broadcast into all the high school's home rooms, and as the candidates get their screen time that nagging political question of whether negative, attacking campaigns work rears its head. Students also discuss how much it matters which candidate looks better or acts less nervous. We're reminded that we're not in just any public school when a student interviewee immediately compares this debate to the Kennedy/Nixon showdowns in 1960.
• How much do the candidates' races and genders determine their success? In the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin (and, of course, Tina Fey!), some students at Stuyvesant speculate that Hannah's girl-girl ticket can't win and another comments that he thinks the U.S. will have a female president before it has a minority President. On the racial front, candidates here, as in the wider U.S. itself, have to court the racial majority—which at Stuyvestant is overwhelmingly Asian (more than 50 percent of the student body). Mike and his running mate Marta fret about being a white-white ticket and all the campaigners try to reach out to Asian voters. One of the most amusing moments in the film features a trio of students chatting in the hallway about what the ideal demographic of a ticket would be at their school:
Student 1: "Usually you need an Asian, man. Otherwise you lose like
half the votes or something."
• When election day finally arrives will voter apathy reign
As much as she brings out the striking similarities between this election and all the big elections we watch on the news, Suh also acknowledges the humorous differences. Besides the fact that our national politicians don't have to worry so very much about the Asian vote, they also have fancier digs and bigger campaign teams than these kids. This funding gap is amusingly illustrated when, in a deleted scene, George invites the crew to interview him in his "field office," which consists of five folding chairs off to one side of the school's hallway. While she allows us to get immersed in the intensity of the campaign, Suh also brings us back to reality once in a while—as in the nicely edited sequence in which a number of excited student commenters give their thoughts after all the homerooms watch the debate. After a few of these interviews, Suh cuts to a very relatable, already world-weary student who says: "My homeroom was filled with teenagers, as is every other homeroom. Therefore, there was partially disinterest, partially mocking—it's high school." Another elegant reminder comes after one candidate's victory, when we see her/him proudly sticking little letters into the front office's decaying felt bulletin board to display her/his name alongside the title PRESIDENT. I wonder if Obama had to do that job himself, too…
Despite these fun parallels, in other ways 2008 was a tough year to release an election-themed documentary. Sure, it was topical—but it was also a type of educational entertainment that was being served up for free in all of our media, non-stop for what seemed like an endless span of time. And the 2008 U.S. Presidential election was certainly the most compelling and exciting one in decades. So it seems to me that watching Obama and Clinton, and then Obama and McCain duke it out, most of us drained our wells of political enthusiasm, leaving an audience for this film that might be pretty hard to impress. Still, for those with bigger reservoirs than me, Frontrunners should be a nice treat.
Frontrunners has another problem besides timing, though: it can't seem to establish the strong bonds between the film's viewers and subjects that are crucial to the success of this type of documentary. Whether it was a function of the candidates themselves or the way the film was shot and edited, I didn't end up loving or rooting for any of them in a particularly strong way. That's a hard failing to excuse these days, when so many documentarians are making real people up on screen every bit as compelling as fictional characters.
In terms of the DVD release, Oscilloscope does a nice job with extras and packaging, but doesn't offer much in terms of picture and sound quality. In its defense, Frontrunners doesn't have a lot to work with visually. Think back to any time you spent in big-city public high schools—as the cinder block walls and fluorescent lights start to materialize in your mind's eye, you'll understand the problem these filmmakers faced. That being said, the film's visuals don't do much to rise above this material and the transfer isn't too great, either, with a tendency to pixelate. Things are a bit better on the audio front, with most of the dialogue being mostly audible and a lively indie rock soundtrack to spice up those campaigning montages. The disc's packaging is adorable. Ditching the plastic case, Oscilloscope goes with a nice, matte cardboard sleeve with a disc holder that folds out to reveal quirky illustrations of the candidates and the school on a wrinkled graph paper background—like a classroom doodle. The on-screen menus get the same treatment as they lead us through a healthy sampling of deleted scenes, grouped by candidate. Of the 12 deleted scenes, quirky George is featured in the lion's share and his are the most fun to watch. In one, he explains how he tries to win subconscious respect and votes by getting his haircut to suggest an imposing crown, with regal, lion-like overtones. Along with these deleted scenes, we also get the full 15-minute version of the debate, which I would only recommend to high school campaigners prepping for their own debates or big fans of a public access television aesthetic. Lastly, there is a full feature commentary with three of the candidates, Mr. Polazzo, Suh, and producer Erika Frankel. If you enjoy hearing strangers reminisce at length about their high school years, this is the commentary track for you. Otherwise, there's not a whole lot to catch our attention here—other than the fact that a year or two of college hasn't helped all of these candidates mature. One of the male candidates spends a lot of time making mean comments about his running mate, saying how no one liked her and how she was trying to seduce him, which is just crass. Take a page from John McCain's book, buddy: even if you did pick a sucky running mate, keep a lid on the trash-talking, eh?
While Frontrunners certainly charms with its quirky look at the big themes of politics writ small, it doesn't create the level of excitement and emotional investment of either real national elections or fictional high school elections. For the best take on this story, see Alexander Payne's Election.
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