SXSW Movie Review: Frontrunners

Every year, 25,000 students apply to New York City's prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Out of those 25,000 students, only 750 get in. A meritocracy in the best sense of the word, Stuyvesant pulls in the best and the brightest, regardless of wealth, class, race, or gender. Most of the students are the children of first- or second-generation immigrants, with close to fifty percent identified as Asian. The top percentile of each graduating class goes on to Ivy League or other well-respected universities and colleges. Not surprisingly, the yearly elections for president of the student body are famed for their hyper-competitiveness. If that sounds like a subject that'd make a fascinating, compelling documentary, then filmmaker Caroline Suh would agree with you. Suh's documentary, Frontrunners, is every bit as fascinating and compelling as she intended (and hoped).

Frontrunners follows four candidates running for president, Hannah Freiman, a cheerleader and actress running for the top spot for the first time, George Zisiadis, a hyperactive, geeky type who's worked in some capacity for the student union for three years, including a stint as president of the freshman class and chief of staff, Mike Zaytsev, a former sophomore president and CFO (Chief Financial Officer) for the school's student budget, and Alex Leonard, a basketball player and "dark horse" candidate (only at Stuyvesant is a popular student-athlete considered a dark horse). Each candidate gets to pick his or her running mate usually to balance one of his or her perceived weaknesses or to cover more demographic ground. The VP candidates make little impact otherwise, though (they're more seen than heard in Frontrunners). Before the election proper, the four candidate teams have to go through a vigorous primary: only the top two vote getters move on to the general election.

Of the four candidates, Zisiadis is the most active campaigner. He positions himself at the top of a stairway/bridge students have to cross every morning to get to the school. Passing out leaflets and chatting up the students on the run, Zisiadis is twitchy, nervous, and eager to please. Of the four candidates, he probably wants the presidency the most (that, of course, doesn't mean he's going to get it). If Zisiadis is the most active and best-prepared candidate of the four, Leonard is the least active and worst prepared. His campaign tactic is not to campaign, presumably to get the apathetic vote of his fellow students. It's a tactic unlikely to succeed, but Leonard seems to be running for president on a lark. Zaytsev is probably the cockiest candidate. He also seems to have the right mix of charisma, popularity, and experience to get past the threshold. Freiman is probably the wild card of the four. The only girl running for the top spot, she's also picked another girl for her running mate (a potentially flawed strategy).

Zisiadis ends up getting most of the screen time before the primary. Clever, smart, ambitious, desperate for success, he's the epitome of the socially awkward, ultra-smart teenager. He also provides Frontrunners with some of the best dialogue, whether he means to or not. His social awkwardness means he's missing out on the filtering mechanism that determines the appropriateness of a response. That doesn't make him any less sympathetic, though. Likewise with Freiman, who, despite not providing the same extent of quotable dialogue, is obviously bright and clever. Her lack of experience with elected office, however, might doom her candidacy. Yes, it gets that serious at Stuyvesant High School.

Not surprisingly, Frontrunners ends up as a microcosm of the real world and elections, with who wins the primary and the general election dependent more on personality, charisma, than on issues or political ideology (okay, there isn't much of that in Frontrunners). As incisive, insightful, and compelling as Frontrunners is (and it is), it stumbles when Suh decides to insert a gratuitous pot shot at the current occupant of the administration and his supporters. Not that the criticism isn't deserved, of course, but out of the 140 hours of footage Suh shot, it makes little sense to include it here. It tells us more than we need about her political sympathies and undermines Frontrunners, where ultimately, the candidates' stance on the issues is far less important than their personalities, charisma, and, more often than not, willpower and desire.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10