In a high school election, familiar campaign tacks

Posted: October 24, 2008

A hard-fought primary, televised debates, pundits pontificating, and newspaper editors arguing over their endorsement - smells like a presidential campaign.

And smells like teen spirit, too. (Sorry, Kurt.)

In Caroline Suh's funny, fascinating documentary Frontrunners, students at New York City's super-competitive Stuyvesant High School face off in a not-exactly-vicious run for president and vice president of the student body. (Full disclosure: This writer is a long-ago Stuyvesant alumnus.)

Sure, it's just high school, and cynics in the halls opine that the candidates - eccentric brainiac George Zisiadis and actress/cheerleader Hannah Freiman at the top of the list - are mainly running because it will look good on their college applications.

But there's an element of seriousness about this race, too. Is the ethnic vote important? (Around 50 percent of the student body is Asian.) Has one candidate run too aggressive a campaign? Is it possible, and viable, to invest the student union's five-figure sums in a bank, or the stock market? Will anyone deliver better school lunches?

With echoes of Alexander Payne's Election, and even a heated debate about the merits of George W. Bush's presidency, Frontrunners offers an insightful glimpse into the democratic process and the mind-set of soon-to-be registered voters. (Also a cool soundtrack, including Elf Power and Of Montreal.)

Sure, it's a skewed view through adolescent eyes, but it's one that still speaks to the aspirations, agendas, image-making and spin control behind a real, grown-up political election.

Red state? Blue state? How about home room?

"Frontrunners" producer Erika Frankel will be at the Bourse tonight after the 7:35 p.m. show for a Q&A.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews. com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at onmovies.

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