Directed by Caroline Suh
Oct. 15-21 at Film Forum, Running Time: 83 min.
Four teams vie for Student Union president in Frontrunners, a documentary about the competitive nature of Stuyvesant High, New York’s top-ranked public school. (Only 3 percent of 25,000 yearly applicants gain admission.) Director Caroline Suh looks at each ticket (headed by drama student Hannah Freiman, jock Alex Leonard, debonair Mike Zaytsev and cagey George Zisiadis) as if she knows them. We all do. If you didn’t resent these schoolroom preeners back in the day, it’s only because you were one yourself. But Frontrunners doesn’t score off ambitious kids, it affectionately recognizes them as social archetypes.
Suh captures ambition and heartbreak as part of the routine of adolescence, the period you start to realize how socializing works. The election is an introduction to real-world rivalries—the competition Stuyvesant specifically grooms these kids for. Everyone here is elite, and yet each student is also a child in the last phase of social innocence. That was also the charm of John Hughes’ classic teen movies Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that have been twisted into acquisitive fantasies. The marvel of Frontrunners comes from watching potential movers-and-shakers who don’t quite know themselves yet.
Hannah is oblivious to her own zeal, Alex begins to suspect his genetic luck won’t always win, George’s transparent eagerness reveals his insecurity and tall Alex—the only WASP candidate—floats through casually. Alex’s campaign platform (“I guess word of mouth works OK. It saves paper for the environment.”) is disarmingly blasé and cheekily evasive. Suh captures teen smartness without being smug; she understands these brainiacs are still endearingly geeky. And that, along with GPAs, is part of their humanity. During an evenly argued schoolyard debate on George Bush one boy calls the President “an isotope.” The competitor shakes his head and classically groans “‘Isotope!’ Fuckin’ Stuyvesant!”
Like last summer’s Gunnin’ For That Number One Spot, Frontrunners is a clear-eyed look at youth culture—a specialty of Oscilloscope Pictures. These movies from Beastie Boy Adam Yauch’s company are distinguished by empathy for their subjects, but they also show sensitivity, insight and craft. A montage introduces the candidates by simulating their yearbook portraits. Gregory Mitnick’s videography is lovingly bright like Tim Orr’s work in Raising Victor Vargas (one visual highlight is George’s makeshift “lounge” constructed of fuschia and yellow curtains strung around a column in the school’s corridor). And the pop soundtrack authenticates the emotional milieu.
Frontrunners is a perfect antidote to the current overly staged presidential election spectacle. It shames the dishonest teen portrait of the recent doc American Teen. This superb, modest film will be the one to remember when Laurent Cantet’s racist The Class (which just opened the New York Film Festival) gets an over-hyped theatrical release in December. By contrast, Suh features the timidity of Stuyvesant’s non-white students (55 percent of Stuyvesant’s enrollment are Asians). In fact, George’s Asian running mate is shown chuckling at his irrepressible pomposity. That’s not cynical; instead it indicates larger (but not irresolvable) social divisions—a knowing footnote to Stuyvesant’s elitism.