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Overachieving high school student Tracy Flick is running unopposed for Student Council President. This draws the ire of history and civics teacher Jim McAllister, who hates Tracy's attitude and feels that the students should have a choice -- any choice -- in the election. There's also the fact that McAllister is holding a massive grudge against Tracy for engaging in a sexual relationship with his best friend/fellow teacher Dave Novotny, which wound up getting him fired and destroying his marriage -- while Tracy (thanks to her mother) got the school to cover up the entire thing in order to protect her reputation.
To foil her dreams of using the election as a springboard for her future, McAllister recruits injured star football player Paul Meltzer to run against Tracy. Added to the mix is Paul's lesbian sister Tammy, who offers herself up as a candidate as well in order to get revenge upon Paul after he starts dating Tammy's ex-girlfriend (who dumped Tammy after deciding that she wasn't a lesbian after all). Meanwhile McAllister, feeling a lack of passion in his love life (and fearing his own Foe Yay with Tracy) starts dating the aforementioned friend's ex-wife. All of this culminates into the mother of all bad days as all of these trains crash into each other.
The film was a critical darling, but had a mediocre take at the box office, due to the studio screwing up its marketing and portraying it as a straight-up teen comedy as opposed to a drama with Black Comedy overtones -- presumably an effort to cash in on the success of American Pie (the fact that Chris Klein is in both films adds a bit of credence to that theory), which came out earlier that year. Based on its critical success, though, it managed an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (which Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor would later win in 2004 for Sideways and again in 2011 for The Descendants). Likewise, Reese Witherspoon received glowing reviews for her performance, and it is often cited as one of the future Academy Award winner's best roles. The film also resurrected Matthew Broderick's career after several years of obscurity.
- Absurdly Powerful Student Council: Deconstructed. The student council is ultimately revealed at the end of the film as being highly dysfunctional, to the point that Tracy can't get anything accomplished during her tenure as President. Furthermore, the film pretty much establishes that the whole thing is one glorified popularity contest: hence why Mr. McAllister selects Paul to run against Tracy since, as one of the most popular kids at school, more kids in theory will vote for him over Tracy. Furthermore, Tammy's entire campaign platform is based upon the idea of dissolving the student council as she openly acknowledges that it is a huge fraud and a waste of time for everyone at school.
- The film does play this straight with Tracy and Mr. McAllister, under the logic that being Student Council President will be a major jewel in the proverbial crown that is Tracy's college application. Being student council president adds a good number of points to one's college application, especially when applying to colleges where heavy extracurricular activity involvement is a prerequisite to get the application board to even give your application a second glance. Indeed, Mr. McAllister outright states that being student council president, along with her straight A+ grades and spotless permanent record, will give Tracy her pick of pretty much any college she applies to.
- Academic Alpha Bitch: T R A C Y.
- Actor Allusion: Five minutes into the movie we see Matthew Broderick's Mr. McAllister throwing questions to the class and asking "anybody?"
- Hell, Matthew Broderick starring in any high school movie after having established his career playing Ferris Bueller.
- All Elections Are Serious Business
- Almighty Janitor: Mr. McAllister makes the very big mistake of unknowingly pissing off the school janitor by dumping a box of chow mein in a waste basket he just emptied. It bites him in the ass when the janitor finds the thrown-out ballots in the trash bin and reveals to the principal that he had rigged the election.
- Alternate Ending: The original ending has Jim working at a car dealership in town having generally recovered from his pariahdom. Tracy shows up to pick up a new car the day before she goes off to college, confronts McAllister and asks him why he did it. After Mr. McAllister apologizes Tracy confesses to being scared about going off to college but McAllister reassures her that she'll be okay signs and her yearbook.
- Bittersweet Ending: McAllister rebuilds his life and finds a new love, but must deal with the fact that Tracy has not only gone on to great things as a Senator's aide, but is still up to her old tricks of seducing older men.
- Brainless Beauty: Paul.
- Briar Patching: Tammy begs her parents not to send her to Immaculate Heart, although that's exactly where she wants to go.
- Cool Loser: Tammy.
- Cute and Psycho: Tracy.
- Dawson Casting: Resse Witherspoon and Chris Klein were 23 and 20 respectively when they starred in this film. Averted with most of the extras and minor student roles as it was filmed on location at a real high school
- Decided by One Vote
- Education Mama: Tracy's mother.
- False Confession: Tammy lies and says that she tore down Paul's posters, more to spite her brother than to take credit for Tracy's actions.
- Fille Fatale: Tracy.
- The Film of the Book
- Grey and Grey Morality: Tracy is a sweet but borderline psychotic overachiever who tears down Paul's posters in a fit of rage, Paul is a well-intentioned but fairly clueless guy who's only running because he was told to by his teacher, Tammy is only in the race to get Revenge against Paul and Lisa, and Mr. McAllister cheats on his wife and rigs the ballots to deny Tracy the victory.
- Incompatible Orientation: Why Lisa stops being friends with Tammy. She was straight (and only "experimenting") while Tammy was lesbian and thought the two of them were in love.
- Karma Houdini: Tracy. Also Lisa - it's strongly implied she dates Paul to hurt Tammy and later a football player to hurt Paul.
- Lonely At the Top: Tracy. Dave even tells her as much when they're dating.
- Mama Bear: Tracy's mother.
- Not So Above It All: Tracy, in her portion of the film's narration, rants and raves against the rich kids of the school and how working hard and playing by the rules gives her moral superiority, all before going batshit crazy and engaging in blatant vandalism by destroying Paul's posters, an act she only gets away with it because someone else (Tammy) would rather take credit for the crime. Not to mention her vow to sue McAllister or anyone else who dares even hint towards the dark secret of her affair with a teacher.
- Pick on Someone Your Own Size
- Popular Is Dumb: Paul.
- Rousing Speech: Tammy gives one during the debate about how meaningless student government is and how the first thing she'd do upon being elected Student Council President is to dismantle the system so that the students wouldn't have to sit through these damn speeches and debates. Her speech is by far the most popular of the three, and its implied that she would've won the election in a Landslide Election had she not been disqualified after she (falsely) confessed to tearing down Paul's campaign posters.
- Schoolgirl Lesbians: Tammy and Lisa, until Incompatible Orientation rears its ugly head. At the end, it's Tammy and Jennifer.
- Stepford Smiler: Tracy, especially in Mr. McAllister's view. Type C.
- Student Council President: What everybody is running for.
- Sweater Girl: It must be said that Reese Witherspoon looks really good in tight sweaters...
- Teacher-Student Romance: For a brief time, Tracy dated and slept with her geometry teacher, Dave Novotny. They got busted, and Dave lost his job and his wife. Fortunately for Tracy's reputation, the whole thing was kept under wraps.
- Unreliable Narrator: Tracy. Her flashbacks (especially on her affair) all downplay her culpability in the events of the film. Jim, Tammy and Paul also count.
- Vote Early, Vote Often: Inverted, but with the same effect. Mr. McAllister throws two votes for Tracy into the garbage in order to deny her the victory.
- Where Are They Now? Epilogue:
- Tammy gets sent to Catholic School Girls Rule after covering for Tracy by falsely confessing to tearing down the posters. She finds that it's not nearly as strict as expected and spends most of her time getting stoned in the bathroom. She also meets her new girlfriend Jennifer.
- Tracy is instated as student council president after Mr. McAllister's fraud is exposed. Unfortunately for Tracy, everyone on Student Council hates her (and each other in general), meaning that Tracy's tenure is a miserable experience all around. After graduation, she attends Georgetown University and continues to find herself alone, surrounded by people she considers to be slackers and underachievers who get by on their parents' money. She later becomes a Congressional aide, with it strongly implied that she is having a sexual relationship with the older man.
- Paul recovers from his injury, rejoins the team, becomes homecoming king and prom king, and goes on to play football for the University of Nebraska. He wonders where his life would have gone had he won the election.
- Mr. McAllister is forced to resign after getting caught rigging the student council election and his wife divorces him for cheating on her. And since the scandal happened on a slow news day, the whole thing is picked up by the national media and McAllister becomes the town pariah. He ultimately moves to New York City where he manages to land a job working as a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History. This gives him a chance to teach again and he starts dating a co-worker named Gillian.
- Dave is working a dead-end job stamping price tags at a hardware store.