Stuyvesant High School in New York City is one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. Only 3% of the 25,000 students who apply there are accepted. Before the screening of Frontrunners, director Caroline Suh told the crowd that one reason she chose Stuyvesant for filming a documentary about a high school election is because the students there are likely, in their adult years, to be the future leaders of our country. Competition is tough at Stuyvesant, and because the student body is made up of kids from all five boroughs of New York City, its composed of a melting pot of ethnic and economic diversity that, in its way, reflects the diversity of the country. Well, kind of -- if the country had a 50% Asian population and was entirely composed of the top 3%.
What is reflective of our country is the school's voter apathy. Of the 3,200 students attending Stuyvesant, most of them don't vote in the student union elections, or even know or care who's running. Like many adults living in the United States who don't exercise their right to vote, most of the students at Stuyvesant simply don't see the elections as relevant to their lives. Frontrunners follows the four tickets running for the offices of Student Union president and vice-president in the school's most recent elections, and the candidates' battle to garner the most votes from those students who do care enough to participate in the process.
We meet the presidential candidates: Hannah, the popular, charismatic head cheerleader and actress who somehow manages to balance all her activities with maintaining an "A" average; George, a highly competitive, first-generation Greek-American and bowling champ, president of his Freshman class and current Chief of Staff of the SU; Mike, considered the frontrunner at the start of the campaigning, who was president of his Sophomore class and is the current CFO; and Alex, the dark horse who threw his hat in the ring for reasons he can't quite articulate. Each of them chose their running mates for different reasons, but all of them exhibit an awareness of the unique politics of the Stuyvesant student body. Will it make a difference to have an Asian-American running mate in an election where half the potential voters are of Asian descent? Can a ticket with two females win?
The filmmakers follow the campaign through the primaries, which only two tickets will survive, and then on to the general election, when the two final candidates will face off against each other with an in-school televised debate to convince their fellow students to vote for them, and interviews with the student newspaper as they vie for the all-important endorsement of the newspaper's staff. In many ways, the issues faced by the candidates for the Stuyvesant SU president mirror that of local and national elections; they have to break through the apathy of the potential voters and garner the attention of students whose lives are every bit as busy as their adult counterparts in the real world.
Perhaps even more so than at most schools, they're competing not just against each other, but against all the other things that have the attention of the voting body -- the pressures of difficult courseloads and homework, the myriad activities that the students feel they need to have on their resumes to get into the "right" universities, the need to score well on the SAT. For many of the students at Stuy, it's not enough just to get into college; it's equally important to get into the best -- meaning Ivy Leaugue -- schools. One student talks with wry embarrasment about her decision to attend a college that, while an excellent school, is not as "cream of the crop" as the schools her peers will attend.
It may be somewhat unfair to compare Frontrunners to another current film about this age group, American Teen, by Nanette Burstein, but I just saw it at Sundance and it played at SWSW (out of competition), and therefore it's relevant to compare the two. American Teen was brilliantly edited -- within the first ten minutes of the film you know you're seeing a film that's not just okay, but great. There's a trend in recent years for docs to follow more of a narrative arc, telling a story as opposed to just presenting information, and American Teen does that very well, immersing us in the lives of the students it follows so deeply that we come to care about each of them, and even the less-likeable of them end up being sympathetic in their own way. We see them interact at school, but we see more of them outside the school setting, where we really get to know each of their individual problems and perspectives, and Burstein was able to get her subjects to open up and be remarkably honest about their hopes and fears for the future.
In the director's notes for Frontrunners, Suh observes that in putting together the film, they sought to present the dialog with the students in an unedited way, wanting to capture their thoughts without putting an editorial spin on it. This is a noble enough idea, but it's also one of the film's weaknesses. When you only have 90 or so minutes to tell a story without losing the audience's interest, you have to be ruthless in the editorial decisions around what goes in and what stays out. Precious screen minutes are wasted in Frontrunners with too many scenes of students standing around handing out fliers that end up on the floor or in the trash, and with rambling dialog that goes on too long. The film's focus is also a little too broad: is Suh making a film about these four kids, their fears and aspiriations, what makes them tick? Or is she making a film about the election process in general within the microcosm of this particular school?
The overall tone of the film would suggest the latter, but if that's her focus, we need to see more of the underlying politics driving the school's student body: why are they largely apathetic about the elections? What do they really care about? Do they see themselves as being relevant to the political process in the very near future, when many of them will turn 18 and will be able to vote outside their school? Do any of the candidates see the SU elections as a stepping-stone into future politics? Conversely, if she'd wanted the focus to be more on these particular students, we need to see more about their personal lives outside of school -- the family pressures, the reasons they applied to this highly competitive school to begin with, their peer relationships and alliances, their understanding of their own places within the social structure of which they're a part. Suh touches on those issues, but because she seems to be trying to simultaneously focus on both the individual candidates and the larger issue of an election in a high school setting, neither angle has the pinpoint focus I'd like to see that would really make the film compelling.
That said, I did enjoy Frontrunners overall, in spite of my frustrations with the film. For the most part, the kids running for office are smart, funny, and very driven, although a part of me looks at the pressures these kids are under and just wants to shake my head. I'd really be more interested in seeing a film about the pressure-cooker setting of a competitive high school like Stuyvesant, and its overall impact on the kids who attend it. I see the tension and pressure faced by kids at the local high schools where I live, which are not nearly as competitive at Stuy, and I wonder how well these kids really handle it, beneath the surface. Frontrunners gives us an alluring peek at that dynamic, but what I'd really like is to see Suh follow up with the four candidates and their running mates five or ten years out, and see where their lives went from there.