It's hard to run for office - even in high school. And the campaign for student body president at Stuyvesant, perhaps the most prestigious public high school in the country, is almost as ...
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It's hard to run for office - even in high school. And the campaign for student body president at Stuyvesant, perhaps the most prestigious public high school in the country, is almost as sophisticated as any presidential election. Candidates must choose running mates, navigate primaries, write political platforms, perform in televised debates, shake as many hands as possible, and win newspaper endorsements. But unlike presidential candidates, they also have to do their homework, take their SATs and write their college applications. FRONTRUNNERS follows the recent elections at the country's most competitive high school, exploring how politics works at a nascent level. As the race unfolds, it takes on undertones familiar to anyone who has watched a national election -- revealing that teenagers have an implicit understanding of how strategy, race, gender, personality, platforms, charisma, and hairstyle figure into a winning campaign. Written by
"FrontRunners," which had its World Premiere in the competition section at the 2008 SXSW Film Festival, is a reminder of just how powerful a good documentary can be.
Director Caroline Suh followed four teams of candidates running for Student Council President and Vice President at New York's Stuyvesant High School, one of the most selective and prestigious in the nation. George Zisiadis is the geek who's too smart for his own good. Michael Zaytsev is the cool one who, since he gets the girls, figure he'll get the votes as well. Hannah Freiman, the lone woman of the four, feels that alone sets her apart (well, she's right on that account), not to mention her popularity as a cheerleader. And Matt Polazzo is the basketball player who's running because, well, it looks like a fun thing to do.
The kids couldn't have been more endearing if this came out of the top casting agency in the city, but they are very real. It's hard not to laugh at their innocent sincerity. They are among the best and brightest yet still have the unjaded idealism of youth. Their campaign methods could teach adults a thing or two -- George places himself at the top of the steps of the bridge the kids have to cross to get to school. That way, they "have to look up at him," making him "psychologically superior in their minds." He blasts their favorite music as he hands out flyers, and it's part of a soundtrack which doesn't pander to the audience. The music is not evocative of our own youth -- not necessarily what we would listen to -- it's the music they listen to, and that's another element that sets this film apart from others of its type.
The camera never invades their space. These kids are smart enough to know how to act when the lens is pointing at them but one never gets the feeling they would have done anything different if it wasn't. They bare their souls and allow us to enter their world -- when they laugh, we laugh. When they cry (well, they don't really cry -- they just get misty eyed the way kids do when they don't want to show it) we tear up along with them. The film has its sweet moments, as any good documentary should, but its mostly hilarious -- these kids are so clever, so smart, so wise. What's scary, though (or not) is that these Stuyvesant grads are much more likely to actually end up in state houses or in Washington than those from other schools. It's left to the viewer to decide if the next generation "gets it" or not.
"FrontRunners" is what other films of its ilk aspire to be -- funny, poignant, and totally engaging. In the end you wish the credits didn't have to roll -- you want to stay with these kids. "FrontRunners" wins my vote.
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