Smart women are as rare on film as they are in life. Rarer even. Smart high school girls might be the rarest cinematic species of all. You can count them on your two hands. Juno, Tracy Flick, Clueless Cher, and Mean Girl Cady. Cooler and wittier than any real girl in any real high school, they’re who we wish we could have been. The girls who say what we wish we had said. Smart girls who use their smart mouths to get into (and out of) considerable trouble.
The adults in these films are unspeakably cool too; perhaps this whole smart high school girl genre is for us grown-up girls (and guys) who revisit our high school hallways every night in our dreams and nightmares, still trying to dot those old i’s and cross those uncrossed t’s, to redress grievances and beat down those bullies that haunt us still. Does Olive and her appliquéd scarlet letter deserve to join the ranks of those who’ve gone before her? Will Easy A earn a more-than passing grade or will Tracy Flick legitimately win this Election? Sharpen that pencil, strap on that backpack, and take notes; this material will be on the test.
Olive feels invisible, a fate worse than infamy, until the Ojai High rumor mill makes her the slutty stuff of local legend. Whiskey-voiced and pixie-faced, Emma Stone scores big in this droll and insouciant comedy; it’s a star-making performance, and she knocks it clear out of the park. It’s high time she got her lead role at-bat. Stone’s been hanging around the edges of high profile films (Superbad, House Bunny, Zombieland) long enough. Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson play her delightfully playful parents; one wishes they had a movie all their own. Here, they sneak in from the sidelines occasionally, pitching such loose-y goose-y riffs it’s hard to believe they’re getting paid to have so much fun. Sardonic and dust-dry Thomas Haden Church makes the coolest English teacher ever; he’s married to Lisa Kudrow, the guidance counselor from hell. It’s a big warm smile of a script with some really nice moments, some easy-to-swallow wisdom, and even some (gasp!) surprises. Who’d a thunk it?
The Defending Champion
Election stands tall and proud in my personal pantheon as our nation’s best and funniest high school movie. A classic of its kind, it’s both laugh-out-loud funny and satirically sly, skewering lust, sexual identity, politics, religion, power and its evil twin, petty ambition, in its take-no-prisoners wake. Reese Witherspoon’s relentless striver Tracy Flick became an instant icon, and Matthew Broderick’s hapless burnout failure-on-every-front Mr. McAllister provided a perfect flipside foil for Ferris Bueller. Remarkably, only thirteen years elapsed between the two roles; the quintessential cool kid became the has-been/never-was washed-up teacher; this casting coup of crushed American dreams was surely no accident.
The politics of Easy A are mostly personal. Religion, piety, and wholesale hypocrisy are the barn-sized targets here. Along the way, parents and teachers and friends dispense truly useful advice for Olive; her problems remain in wonky perspective even for her. Humor is the coin of this realm; the gravest assaults and insults slide off like water on this duckling’s back. We know (and so does she) that the stakes in her overblown dilemma aren’t terribly high – it’s only high school; she will emerge unscarred and stronger. I. Get. That. And I appreciate it.
Amanda Bynes plays purity ring-wearing Bible thumper Marianne, and television’s new Hellcat Alyson Michalka scores one for the dark side of blondes as Olive’s rainy-day bestie Rhiannon. Both are uber-creepy, probably mostly on purpose. Or I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m feeling generous. And yes, the students look a little older than most; that’s because they are. Get over it. It’s a movie.
Olive references several classic John Hughes movies, and the filmmakers even recreate/reimagine iconic moments from a few. Eighties teen movies were undeniably cool, and the hip acknowledgment provides coolness by association. Upping the film-geek cool quotient considerably is Malcolm McDowell’s Principal Gibbon. Imagine getting detention from Clockwork’s Alex.
Election boasts a terrific cast. Poor man’s Keanu Chris Klein delivers big as Paul Metzler, the archetypal sweet jock with a heart of gold and a head of mush. Reese Witherspoon rightly became a household name with this outing, and Matthew Broderick, world-weary and whipped, has never been better or broader, funnier or more touching. More than holding her own in such esteemed company (and just about walking off with the entire film tucked under her arm) is Jessica Campbell as Tammy Metzler, Paul’s sister. Her campaign speech is practically perfect in every way, and I can’t think of it even years later without grinning ear to ear.
Geography plays a huge role in both films. For you uninitiated non-Californians, Ojai is pronounced “Oh, High.” Which explains a lot. Orange groves and artists bound. Loopy, laid-back, always-sunny Ojai sets a blithe stage for Easy A. What could go so terribly wrong in a place like that? Gritty always-grey suburban Omaha makes life’s prospects a little bleaker in Election, a place where nothing could go terribly right. The film profits from its terrific pedigree. New Jersey Native Son Tom Perrotta’s novel provides rich source material; he and director Alexander Payne along with Jim Taylor make even more of its muchness in their whip-smart snarky screenplay. Perrotta’s got bigger fish to fry than high school small-pond small-fish small-fry, and fry them he does. The film captures something essential about the very worst of our nation’s high school teachers; all those broken dreams and ratcheted-down ambitions create a claustrophobia that breeds discontent and dishonor.
Election crystallizes everything about high school campaigns — the poster-making and speechifying, the power-brokering and back-slapping, the pure pedantry, rampant apathy, and ultimate innocuousness. Throwing a big metaphorical rock through a previously obscured window, no post-Election high school student can ever deny that teachers live lives beyond the classroom, however sordid and sad those lives may be. And no citizen can look at any election campaign with an unjaundiced eye either.
Easy A earns an easy A-minus, and remember, students, I’m grading on a curve. It’s not quite worthy of instant classic status like Election but it stands up in the ring, unbloodied and proud, snarky and worldly wise. It may not have something earth-shattering to say, but it says what it has to say well enough, and the performances and the loopy energy more than carry the day. Besides, I’m all for thumping Bible thumpers and hypocrites of any stripe whenever the traffic allows. That said, Election maintains its A-plus after more than a decade at the top of the heap and wins this fight fair and square.