This year’s race comes down to a clear choice between vitality and experience. On the one hand, you have a young outsider running on a ticket of change; on the other, an older, more experienced candidate who nonetheless wants to “raise the bar.” The former is accused of being all style and no substance, but balances this with an experienced running mate. The latter occasionally seems too intense, but has cleverly joined forces with a likable female vice-presidential candidate who might help soften his image.
No, I’m not talking about the current race for the U.S. presidency–these are the frontrunners in the occasionally cutthroat, often over-serious bid for the office of Student Union President at Stuyvesant High School, New York City’s most competitive public school. But even on this diminutive scale, campaigning for higher office is a strange, highly formalized process of glad-handing the electorate and warming up to pundits and wonks, though it’s relatively free of the pubescent drama one might expect.
In following Stuyvesant’s presidential elections, Caroline Suh‘s “Frontrunners” is less a documentary version of Alexander Payne‘s “Election” and more a junior version of “Primary” or “The War Room.” Thus what one student half-mockingly refers to as “Stuyvesant High School for gifted young men and women such as ourselves” isn’t so much a Manhattan microcosm of the American electoral process as one small scramble amongst the best of the best, each of them trying to better their chances of admission to Harvard and to secure their future among the elite.
With a forty- to fifty-thousand-dollar budget at their disposal, these students command real fiscal power with the semblance of an actual executive structure. Two veterans of this mini-bureaucracy — Mike, the popular, if rather cocky CFO, and George, a super-charged Chief of Staff who uses phrases like “synergical force of amiability” — are pitted against two relative newcomers — the undermotivated Alex and the likable Hannah (who is also an actor, having appeared in Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes” of all things).
With serious (and typically guarded) teenage subjects and an emphasis on process rather than passion, “Frontrunners” never quite penetrates beyond a surface layer of earnest school spirit and resume-building gumption. Scored somewhat incessantly with cuts from The M’s, Mogwai, and Of Montreal, and cut at a quick pace, the film barely alights on what’s really at stake for its subjects or whether this election means anything more to them than a line on their resume. But in some sense, this failure to lay bare any burning angst at the heart of a high school presidential election is actually more revealing — rather than missing some underlying truth about the ennui of teenage life, it actually points up how ritualized and how like a rehearsal for adult life (and adult bureaucracy) it really is.
Of course, anyone with any recollection of their own high school’s election processes will recognize the very engaged, mostly serious, and slightly irritating precocity of the overachieving class president. But at Stuyvesant, as the film presents it, this attitude is pervasive throughout the student body. Even when the students interviewed complain about typical adolescent nose-thumbing or disinterest in the electorate, all we see on camera are dutiful readers of the school newspaper, mock-pundits, political analysts, and various other good citizens-in-training. Even an offhand debate between a few students late in the film about whether or not Bush is a “retard,” while not exactly insightful, nonetheless portrays a student body for whom politics — or at least arguing about it — is essential. So, when George blasts “Baba O’Reilly” from a jukebox while handing out election propaganda to prospective voters, the irony is clear: Stuyvesant is not a teenage wasteland at all, but a bountiful pasture of Ivy Leaguers-to-be.