It's often observed that high school is a metaphor for life. That's the prism through which some of us see our co-workers, our jobs, our selves, and, if "Frontrunners" a new documentary that opens today at the Brattle Theatre, is right, our elections.
The film plunks us down for a month on the lowest west side of Manhattan at the intensely competitive Stuyvesant High School for the election of a student union president and vice president. We meet the candidates, attend campaign meetings, and hear teachers and fellow students, including a pundit named Jon, put the race in perspective. There is even a primary and a televised debate.
But the movie doesn't know what it wants to say about the election or the people who run in it. Director Caroline Suh opts for a little of everything, mostly an immersion in the candidates' personalities.
Hannah Freiman is a peppy, red-headed picture of extroversion - she heads the cheerleading squad, played Ellen Barkin's daughter in Todd Solondz's 2004 film "Palindromes," and is basically a student-government outsider. George Zisiadis, a hopelessly loquacious oddball, loves the student union and really wants the presidency. (His innovation is investing the student body's money in the banking system, and it doesn't feel too soon to find the ambition behind his inopportune timing very funny.)
While we watch students shove pamphlets into the trash, see two complacent candidates torpedo their chances, and watch a pair of boys argue about the efficacy of the current Bush presidency, another, more fascinating movie emerges. It's possible that Suh meant "Frontrunners" to demonstrate just how much this very local election is a microcosm for our national political events - how, again, we're stuck for life with high school. But, really, it's a portrait of this school.
Over and over, I was struck by the average Stuyvesant student's self-awareness. Their very Stuyvesantness is a source of amusement and chagrin. As an aside, the movie drops in on some kids strewn about a hallway floor. Apparently, they've devised some backhanded system in which their class rank corresponds to U.S. News & World Report's college rankings. The young woman who explains this says her rank (No. 36) would make her Dickinson College. She's annoyed and embarrassed.
So is the kid on the losing end of that George W. Bush discussion. When one of his friends compares the war (or something related to it) to isotopes, the Bush supporter throws up his hands and lets out an unprintable frustration with the whole Stuyvesant achievement ethos.
The election is interesting, but it's an eccentric part in a larger, less explored story about the inner workings of top public high schools. The kids now know how to play the game of college admissions, but they seem more jaded by their knowledge than entitled to success. And their exasperation with the process, their peers, and themselves is endlessly, illuminatingly watchable.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.