“This is high school; we want trips to Canada and better prom tickets,” snorts a student at lower Manhattan’s competitive Stuyvesant High, reacting to some high-flown campaign rhetoric in Frontrunners, a smooth but surprisingly negligible account of an election for student union president. Counting Thelonious Monk and Robert Moses among its alumni (along with, perhaps more relevantly, Bill Clinton’s scummy former strategist Dick Morris), Stuyvesant’s winnowing of its 25,000 annual applicants ensures that shrewdly ambitious New York teens will be vying for leadership positions to approve club budgets and run dances. If this documentary’s Tracy Flick is Hannah, head cheerleader and a poised actress (in Todd Solondz’s Palindromes, no less) but a political neophyte, its Max Fischer is George, an intense SU wonk who sets up a curtained lounge at his locker to entertain student reporters and who phones kids “he doesn’t know that well” on their birthdays. More laidback candidates are dispatched in the primary elections, leaving George—with his proposal to invest the student funds “in our trusty American banking system” (ah, 2006)—to ponder his strategy for winning the school paper’s endorsement and acing the televised debate against the infinitely less awkward Hannah. Despite the intended echoes of adult campaigns, including a bemused junior pundit (“A lot of what they have to work with is, like, their photos”), there only seems to be much at stake in Frontrunners for the meticulous George, who makes choosing a pint of after-class ice cream into a careful cost-benefit analysis.
Lacking characters as cartoonishly entertaining as the bee geeks in Spellbound, director Caroline Suh doesn’t dig deep enough; the lack of nonwhite candidates in a student body that’s half Asian (except occasionally as ticket-balancing running mates) is mentioned perfunctorily. The politicking in the fluorescent-lit halls makes for a nearly homogeneous tableau of smart white kids aiming to burnish their college applications with an electoral sparkle, scored to an indie-rock soundtrack. (Suh does locate a boy who boasts of being the school’s sole Bush supporter, who shakes his head at a friend’s comparison of Iraq’s shaky democracy to an unstable isotope. “Isotopes! Fuckin’ Stuyvesant.”) The low stakes for everyone but George encourages an attitude in the viewer not unlike that of a blasé basketball jock who doesn’t bother to distribute flyers for his halfhearted vanity candidacy. He deadpans, “Word of mouth saves paper. All for the environment.”