The great American student-government election: teenagers exposing their fragile egos to public ballot-box rejection and spending a small fortune on poster board, all for the possible distinction of assigning Homecoming subcommittees and allocating school funds for a laminator.
This is the stuff of which Frontrunners is made. Caroline Suh’s doc exists somewhere between Robert Drew’s Primary and reality TV, following the 2007 election cycle at New York City’s cream-of-the-crop Stuyvesant High School, where the student (busy)body is made up of potential valedictorians from every borough. (The school’s Wikipedia entry is more extensively and obsessively footnoted than the one for the Crimean War.) In one digression, a few outgoing seniors rattle off the rankings of their colleges, leaving little doubt that they’ve got the whole list memorized.
As when you look at somebody else’s yearbook and find tweaked variations of your own class, Frontrunners is populated with faintly familiar types. Candidates include: Hannah, a stage-struck redhead addicted to extracurriculars (who also carries the dubious distinction of having been in a Todd Solondz movie); Alex, a laconic bro who seems unaware that he signed up for the race; and the would-be breakout geek-chic star, George, a skinny Greco-American from Queens. You probably knew a similar study in insecurity-camouflaged-by-eccentricity—maybe carried a briefcase instead of a backpack, probable They Might Be Giants fan. (The teacher overseeing the elections apologetically explains to the camera that George, initially, “seems really creepy.”) He has the double-dome’s knack for using twice as many words as necessary to express simple concepts, which can be amusing, as in speaking of his running mate: “We’re a synergical force far beyond the normal human comprehension of amiability.”
That the student-government “popularity contest” is a microcosm of the adult political arena is an old saw—see Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s perennially quoted “High school is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” To that idea we owe primary-season think pieces recasting Alexander Payne’s Election with Barack and Hillary, as well as Frontrunners‘ savvy election-eve release date. A Student Lounge pundit periodically pops up as our chorus; he could probably be one of the smarter talking heads on The Situation Room. The race card is flipped: Stuyvesant has an enormous Asian population, and it’s implied that George’s VP has been selected to add some epithantic folds to the ticket. The staff at the student newspaper, anguished by responsibility, spin the big debate as a choice between the politically untested but stage-honed Hannah, “coming from outside the Student Union” (read: Beltway), and George’s track record of deal-brokering savvy—though his proposition to securely invest some class funds will doubtless get a giggle, as world markets swirl ever further down the crapper.
Tactfully keeping away from actual policy details and emotionally sticky stuff, cutting for punchlines, and overlaying campaigning montages with a playlist shuffle of kazoo-whimsical indie feyness, Suh shows herself ever-happy to settle for the shallow rewards of pop documentary. Depending on your level of fatigue with The Other Campaign, this may be good enough.