Film Review: Frontrunners

Amusing, sometimes wistful, documentary of elections in a New York City high school.

Coming along at the perfect time, Frontrunners captures the energy and excitement that surrounds actual elections. This time, the focus is on the competition at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, but the documentary’s message also comments on the current national race.

Director Caroline Suh follows the young candidates for class president through the entire process in this captivating story where politics often trumps ideas and do-gooding. The candidates and their running mates seek support of the student body with platforms and positions, some practical, some ideological. Since the school is filled with bright, ambitious, savvy students, the competition is fierce and, of the four major candidates, two emerge as the most promising: Alex Leonard, a jock, and Hannah Freiman, a theater major.

The campaigning and politicking culminates in a “televised” debate. Neither candidate emerges as a clear winner, but in the end, on election day, one candidate wins handily, securing a possible future in post-graduate politics.

The campaign is instructive and cautionary. Though the candidates never stoop to the level of smearing their opponents or employing dirty tricks, they emerge as model modern political candidates—attractive and charismatic, but (at least for the victor) more concerned with winning than solving problems.

Somehow, Suh managed to gain access to the students’ activities, even their intimate moments, without seeming to interfere in the process. Frontrunners could easily be mistaken for a dramatic feature—it’s amazing how natural and unselfconscious the students are on camera.

Frontrunners rewards viewers with a vivid, lively, and symbolic real-life story more compelling than fictional movies such as Election (1999). Suh reassures us that democracy is alive and well (dispelling the myth of the apathetic young voter), while making us pause to consider the kind of people who emerge from the system.