Thursday, October 16, 2008

It's Just Politics As Usual...

In a community that is supposed to be so advanced, why on Earth would they still be counting ballots by hand, using a tally mark system? Grant it, these kids were literally kids during the election debacle of 2000, but isn't it the job of their faculty "advisor" to show them a better way? In Caroline Suh's newest documentary, Frontrunners, about the four major contenders for Student Union President in the high profile New York City magnet high school, Stuyvesant, this is unfortunately and quite frankly the one question that plagues viewers to the end. Slightly unbalanced, with a third act that feels a bit rushed once it finally gets around to showcasing the actual election, Frontrunners is certainly a timely film, but what makes it so fascinating is the absurdly surreal world in which it is set.

If you're not from the tri-state area, chances are you've never heard of Stuyvesant High School. Though it is the top math and science school in New York City, with an average SAT score in the 1400s, the school that receives twenty-five thousand applicants a year but only accepts the top 750 runs more like a university than a public secondary school. So let me give you a few more facts so you have the background that the film fails to provide: named for explorer Peter Stuyvesant, "Stuy," as the students call it, sits on the lower Westside of Manhattan; the city's most intelligent and competitive eighth graders take an exam akin only to a "baby SAT" every winter to determine which (if any) of the technical schools they can choose from attending for the next four years of their educations career. Stuyvesant sits at the top of the list, needing the highest score to allow entry, trailed closely by Bronx Science and then Brooklyn Tech. The majority of the student body is Asian, with a strong Russian and Indian population, as well, and they travel from all five boroughs for the opportunities Stuyvesant offers: for example, every single graduating senior is expected to go onto college, and though just under half attend an Ivy League, they all know the national ranking of their college of choice, and they drop the number casually in conversation, exclaiming they're "three" or "ten" with a smile or, God forbid, "thirty-two" with a somewhat shameful lowering of the eyes. Stuyvesant, therefore, is by no means a "typical" American high school; it is filled with many more of your World of Warcraft nerds than your boy-next-door jocks. So just what, then, made this the quintessential place for Suh to study a "typical" high school election?

"The minute I said I wanted to do a film about the lives of high school candidates, a friend said I had to check out Stuyvesant," Suh explains. Perhaps simply for the fact that it is so unlike any other place: it is a surreal, seemingly fictional world all on its own that tries to run like a microcosm of the real world, just in a place where everything is really trivial in the end. Sitting on Chambers Street, with a literal bridge the students must cross everyday to go over the West Side Highway and into the front doors, Stuyvesant boasts no football field; though they have just about every sports team (or club) imaginable-- bowling and golf not withstanding-- pep rallies, homecoming, and playoff game tickets do not bring out students, parents, and alumni in droves. It is like no high school you have seen in any movie before this. The candidates tape a live debate, for example, and it airs on the closed-circuit television system set up in each classroom; and the student newspaper, The Spectator, chooses a candidate to endorse based on their composure, likeability, and research in said debates. But Frontrunners is not about Stuyvesant; it is about the students at Stuyvesant-- a very select few who, although each are unique, do not seem interesting enough to warrant their own documentary. When thrown together, though, their different personalities compliment each other in an odd way and serve to show their school as a bit more well-rounded than is assumed when someone hears the words "math and science technical school." Suh does not turn a blind eye to the biggest part of high school, though-- the popularity of the students-- but she allows her subjects to be the ones to point out the fact that the "cheerleaders would vote for Hannah, and the quieter Asians would vote for George, and the Russian kids would probably vote for Mike."

Suh focuses on who these candidates are and how they campaign, from the reflective George who integrates science terminology into everyday speech in a way that you know would get him stuffed in a locker at just about any other place in the country, let alone the rough and tough city that is New York, to the eager and outgoing actress Hannah, who aside from her political aspirations has also appeared opposite Ellen Barkin in a feature film and guest starred on Law & Order. Suh's camera is a fly on the wall inside these hallowed halls, watching as these kids agonize over such seeming adult decisions during the primaries. Some may have to reprioritize their extracurriculars, but all have to put themselves out to be judged in the "public eye" in a place and time when most just try to fit in. If nothing else, the sheer amount of pressure and stress these kids put upon themselves is courageous but also simply stunning to watch. Perhaps the one slight injustice is that Suh does not mention the elephant in the room: though racial politics certainly come into play here, not one of the candidates for Student Union President represents the majority of the school as an Asian American student. Suh may not have been given such a candidate, but she doesn't interview and explore why not either.

Suh met surprisingly little resistance from the Stuyvesant community, and she knows she is blessed for it. Should one candidate (or candidate's parent, since they were all under the age of eighteen at the time of filming) refused to be on camera, her production would have been virtually shut down; she had to be free to roam wherever her subjects roamed and experience whatever they did. Perhaps as a thank you for the hospitality, then, Suh does not exploit the missteps of the young politicians; she shows where they make mistakes or slip up, sure, but she does not linger the way for which a reality show camera has trained us to look out. Never biased, she never leads her audience toward supporting one candidate or another, and even when one in particular takes some mean-spirited advice from a bitter gym-teacher-turned-dean about how he should rip apart his opponent in the debate, Suh skates over the scene, as if trying to soften the blow and dillute the implications to protect the scrutiny of her young subject. In a way, Suh's documentary is much more mothering than one might expect for the harsh, cold world high school has become (or at least fictionally depicted) of late.
There are no twists to Frontrunners; there is no high drama involving a personal scandal or fledging grades affecting the outcome of a campaign. In fact, we rarely see these kids outside of their safe zone of Stuyvesant High School, and perhaps because of that, they don't really drop their guard, and we don't get to know them much as people beyond what's on their resume. Frontrunners can be seen, then, as almost a video diary for their college application-- all squeaky clean, professional, and trying to change the world-- but that can't be genuine all of the time, can it? So in that regard, Frontrunners is mundane, but nothing in it was faked for dramatic effect, either, so it's hard to compare it to anything in the past and call it dull. Stuyvesant is like no other high school, but it's student election is surprisingly similar to those held in every high school in every city or town across the country. There are no surprises here, no matter how much your post-millennium film viewing has trained you to expect otherwise. The only real thing left to wonder about after viewing Frontrunners is whether or not the cut-and-dry way it plays out will mirror itself in the real November 4th election. At any other time, this film would probably screen only in private, to lightly sprinkled crowds made up of only Stuy alumni, but the timing couldn't be better, or the subject matter be more relevant, so Frontrunners will be granted a run of its own in select theaters on October 24th.

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