Monday, November 3, 2008


"Frontrunners" is a small-operation documentary that follows four separate political campaigns vieing for leadership of the Stuyvesant High School Student Union. The candidates' attitudes span that emotional spectrum present in all adolescent endeavors; it begins at face value ambivalence and ends somewhere around a strained attempt to seem adult, but at all times masks a poignant hope to navigate puberty unscathed. Caroline Suh has made a hilarious documentary (that, yes, is also poignant and startingly reflective of the current political battle) and lets you know just how little national politics have progressed beyond the level of High School popularity contests. Or, to put it another way: just how much High School popularity contests have accelerated to the level of national politics.

Without too much effort, the documentary draws plenty of parallels with our current political and racial divides, but this is probably just because of the structure of Stuyvesant's political race: they have stump speeches, televised debates, and two rounds of voting (no kidding! these kids have primaries!). The ethnic layout of the high school even determines which vice-presidential runningmates the frontrunners choose: you should probably cover both sexes, and you better have someone of asian decent.

What makes the movie so much fun to watch, and what sheds unusual (maybe not new) light on these political structures, is all of the emotions and personalities bouncing around within them. Not only do the candidates clash, as they always do, but there's also this wildcard thrown into the bunch: all of the stress and silliness of High School. The race culminates in the televised debate, and a student says that her home room laughed and jeered at the whole event. All of this preparation, all of this dedication, all met with a deadpan, "It's high school. What do you expect?"

"Frontrunners" is peppered with kneeslappers and little chuckles, and never really makes its way into revelatory territory. There are no great lessons of puberty or politics to be learned here. It is, rather, a log of the weeks leading up to the Stuyvesant election and is full of little moments that, despite of their unimportance, glance towards things more personal to the kids experiencing them. Ms. Suh and her crew have made a film about that tendency that humans have, especially at that age, to imbue something tiny with great hope. Then get people to vote on it.

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