Alexander Payne has staked his career on depicting not heroes or losers, heartthrobs or desperate wannabes, but the solidly middle-of-the-road. His persons of interest are the aggressively normal, with all their attendant flaws and mild idiosyncrasies, instead of clear protagonists and antagonists. This is evident in Citizen Ruth, in which an unassuming woman gets caught between factions warring over abortion, and in Sideways, in which a sad-sack English teacher finds himself playing reluctant wingman on a rumspringa of a bachelor trip. But the film that best represents Payne’s artistic commitment to normalcy is Election, his 1999 adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel.

Election pits two characters against each other, appropriately enough, their outlines clear if not especially impressive: teacher Jim McAllister [Matthew Broderick] versus student Tracy Flick [Reese Witherspoon]. “Mr. M.” has been teaching “U. S. History, Civics, and Current Events” at an Omaha public high school for years; he is satisfactorily married to a nurse named Diane, and together they have a bungalow and no kids. Tracy Flick, a pretty, petite junior at Carver High, is a striver, a winner of numerous blue ribbons, and ready to mount an ambitious campaign for the office of president of the student government. Our early impressions of the two already work to clarify their relative trajectories. Mr. M. circles the school track early one morning before classes, jogging at a not-very-brisk pace, while Tracy gets the Max Fischer treatment in a detailed yearbook collage that charts her ascension through many extracurriculars [a segment that comes off as lovingly ripped from Rushmore, released just a year before]. In between, their first interaction takes place over Tracy’s signature-collecting table set up in the school lobby. It’s immediately obvious that she gets under Mr. M.’s skin. The drama of the movie hinges on the nature of this enmity: it’s not because she’s a [young] woman, it’s not because she’s beautiful; it’s because her ambition, in Mr. M.’s eyes, is too great for comfortable Omaha.

Because Tracy is running unopposed, Mr. M. cajoles another student, a popular jock, to enter the race, and the jock’s outcast sister follows suit soon after. Tracy’s assured power grab suddenly thrown off, her campaign tactics escalate, and Mr. M.’s quietly do so in turn. Ultimately the two wind up facing off over torn posters and buried indiscretions, turning the humble school election into a vicious joust between student and teacher. What matters to Tracy is winning; what matters to Mr. M. is fairness—that is, just this once, he’d like to see the girl who’s achieved every single goal of her young life miss out on something.

Yet because Payne isn’t interested in making a grand statement about politics or even the nature of the student-teacher relationship, he prevents the adversaries at the center of Election from outshining Omaha, their middling Midwestern backdrop. Tracy and Mr. M., for all their differences, are both more and less faithful to the vague code of morals and ethics that governs life in their small city. They’re both given to speaking in platitudes, employing hokey turns of phrase to make a point. And although they both have uplifting twists of destiny in store, neither is willing to do anything too outlandish to get there. Secondary characters such as the doe-like Paul Metzler, Tracy’s likable main opponent during the presidential race, and Linda Novotny, Mr. M.’s because-she’s-there object of desire, further ground the film in an extra-normal reality. It’s the reality of celebratory pie at Bakers Square and extramarital rendezvous in a quasi-seedy motel, of well-tended streets and shopping malls. See also the Joe Biden-ish school principal, the hundreds of bored kids packed into the gym for an assembly, and Mr. M.’s disgraced former colleague: these are all people who, with wide berth given to their shortcomings, are frankly, blessedly normal. They are the type of characters, in a certain type of setting, that make an Alexander Payne movie an Alexander Payne movie: while another director would be interested in a high-school election as synecdoche for the state of national politics, Payne finds fascination—and sometimes amusement—in the largely apolitical characters of regular people. 

Critics have sometimes taken issue with a perceived condescension that informs Payne’s portrayal of middle-class life, but the saving grace of his films is that he isn’t cutting enough to mine all his humor from the characters themselves. Instead, he often relies on sly visual curlicues that only imply their endearing mediocrity. My personal favorites in Election include the can of Mug root beer that Mr. Novotny [the disgraced colleague] seductively shares with Tracy; the slow-traveling automatic seat belt that straps Mr. M. into his sedan; the name of the porno tape that Mr. M. slips into his VCR: Touchdown! [Turns out he’s seen it so many times, he’d rather just drink his Pepsi.] Similarly, Mr. M. and Diane are filmed having sex vertically to the camera, emphasizing the act’s transactional nature and quashing any sensuality; soda pop, that mundane elixir, shows up a number of times; Mr. M. cools a fresh bee sting with a bottle of cheap champagne that was meant for greater things.

All these flourishes—humble yet memorable, just like his characters—keep Payne’s movies safely within the friendly embrace of satire and out of the cruel grip of parody or the sweaty palm of the feel-good movie. Payne consciously occupies the middle ground: he holds up normal people not so they can be loathed or admired, but so they can just be—as they are when they deal with those curveballs that interrupt everyone’s trajectory in life; as they are when they must take stock of their likely destinies. 

The movie ends with a chance encounter between Mr. M. and Tracy Flick, long after they’ve both left Omaha. Mr. M., now happily working as a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History and in Washington, D. C., for a conference, spies Tracy getting into a congressman’s car. She’s presumably an intern. She’s still on the way up, though with her nerdy pragmatism visibly intact. Mr. M., in a final fit of irritation [it was never quite anger], hurls his cup of Pepsi at the rearview window, then books it when the car screeches to a halt. His is the civil disobedience of the perfectly civil.