Detailing the 2006 campaign for Student Union President of ultra-competitive, elite Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Caroline Suh’s documentary “FrontRunners” shows us not only where the politicians of tomorrow come from, but also the tactics that get them there; as amusingly “business as usual” as it is unique.
While its merits as a microcosm of the political system are a highlight, it cannot be ignored how absolutely entertaining the film is, mainly due to the presidential candidates and their natural charisma. Well, save one that is. I’ll explain…
The four candidates for the 2006 Student Union presidency were Mike Zaytsev, Hannah Freiman, Alex Leonard and George Zisiadis. Out of those four, only one them, Alex, gets short shrift in the documentary, mainly because he doesn’t really campaign, and, for the most part, no one seems aware that he’s even running. Now, in a normal high school, this might still merit attention, but in the tense, brilliant hallways of Stuyvesant, you either bring your “A” game, or you get ignored.
Mike, for example, is the epitome of the cool, popular boy. He runs with the popular kids and, essentially, feels the campaign is sewn up in his favor the minute his name is on the ballot. In other words, he doesn’t think he NEEDS to campaign, but does so anyway, in hilarious, laid-back fashion (his campaign includes nonchalantly hanging out by his locker and telling people to “make the right move” as they walk by).
Hannah, on the other hand, is the perfectionist live wire. Think Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Election,” but way more likable. She campaigns hard, despite the hardship it causes her already busy extracurricular schedule. Based on sheer likability, you figure she’s got the best shot at winning, provided Mike’s fan-base doesn’t just roll him into office.
And then there’s George. George is like Max Fischer from “Rushmore,” an entrepreneur who thinks far too hard and too much on every little detail, George is the one who seems to want the position the most, and is arguably the most politically savvy. While his all-business, “I’m running for Student Union President but I may as well be running for U.S. President” attitude turns some people off, his persistence is both intriguing and to be admired. And, again, the kid is a savvy bastard, including choosing a running mate based on her Asian ethnicity due to the high percentage of students in the school that are Asian and, the theory is, that whoever can get that racially-motivated vote, will also take the campaign.
In most normal school elections, there are speeches, maybe a flyer passed around or two, but it comes down to the popular kid winning every time. In “FrontRunners” the campaigning is just as intense as for any major political office, with the candidates working to motivate an apathetic voter base, trying to secure the local newspapers endorsement and trying to work all the angles, even the racial ones as mentioned above, to make sure that those that will vote, will vote for them. It’s real politics, done at the high school level.
The beauty of the film is seeing where the politicians of tomorrow come from, and seeing the democratic process at its most disturbingly pure. What I mean by that is that there is no mud-slinging going around, these are fresh faces employing creative political tactics to get a leg up, and it is fascinating to watch what works, what doesn’t, and what the voters think about all the insanity.
This film couldn’t come out in a better time, in a better year. If “FrontRunners” doesn’t teach you something about politics, at least it will entertain you. To quote Mike, “make the right move;” see this movie.