Personal attacks. Passive-aggressive jabs. Sexist insinuations. Classist assumptions. What a campaign, am I right?
Oh, did you think I was talking about the 2016 Presidential race? No, sorry, I was referring to Caroline Suh’s wonderful documentary “Frontrunners,” a document of a high school student union presidential election. This is hardly an ordinary educational institution, though; the film takes place at New York City’s Stuyvesant High, an elite specialized high school with a formidable alumni roster. The outcome of this race helps determines the future leaders of America. (Go Facebook stalk the subjects and see what they’re up to these days. Seriously.)
What elevates this account of a campaign turned venal to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” status is the seriousness with which Suh presents the proceedings. Fictional films like Alexander Payne’s “Election” use high school student government as a stage upon which to satirize the dysfunction at the federal level. “Frontrunners” views these events as important and worthy of consideration in their own right. One approach is not automatically better than the other, but it is nice to see adolescent civics dignified with such an earnest presentation.
Aside from the occasional input from the organization’s faculty advisor, “Frontrunners” is a film about the students told by the students. The profile of each of candidate essentially consists of what they reveal during in-the-moment interviews and how they act in public. All are making strategic calculations based on their understanding of the student body, both in terms of the platform on which they run and how they present their candidacy. Turns out, the Stuyvesant students are hard to pin down and predict. While it might not hold a candle to the unpredictability in 2016 thanks to the Donald, “Frontrunners” contains plenty of surprising developments and shocking moments to make the election a nail-biter up to the announcement of the winner.