In Variety, where industry rumors congeal into analysis and analysis hardens to consensus, the news is bad for filmmakers like Alexander Payne. “Small Pix Perplex Big Studios,” reads a headline in the May 31 issue. The pix in question are the few recent films that were made relatively cheaply (for less than $10 million) and then released by studios more habituated to handling $50 million products. According to Variety, the result has been disappointment: for Buena Vista over Rushmore, for Sony over Go and for Paramount over Payne’s Election, all of which “grossed less than $18 million at the box office–well below expectations.”

As a Nation reader, you will refuse to pity anyone who trifles with such sums. But then, as a self-interested moviegoer, you might take seriously the studios’ disappointment. Imagine yourself responsible for a production budget of, say, $8 million. Add the costs of advertising and promotion, and you might spend $15 million to release a clever little picture–with your cut of an $18 million box office amounting to some $9 million. That’s why, as much as you might love Election, you probably would avoid the next project that reminded you of it.

So how are clever little pictures to reach an audience, if big studios shy away? Variety‘s writer, Andrew Hindes, speaks for the consensus when he says the answer lies with “minimajors” such as Miramax (a division of Buena Vista/Disney). These companies market films more economically than do the studios; they also “are more oriented toward painstaking publicity-driven campaigns.” But this is precisely where I begin to fear for Alexander Payne, knowing that his previous film, Citizen Ruth, was a Miramax release.

Miramax does well with uplifting fare, such as Life Is Beautiful (feel good about the Holocaust!), Shakespeare in Love (feel good about Shakespeare!) or Kids (feel good that you’re not one of those rotten kids!). The company seems less comfortable when it sets about marketing something like Citizen Ruth. That film is a nails-on-blackboard comedy about one of the undeserving poor who does not hesitate to sell her body to the highest bidder. Even worse: The part of her body that interests the bidders is her fetus. The protagonist, having stumbled into the midst of pro-choice and antiabortion activists, discovers she can play them off against one another for money–which is, in Alexander Payne’s shocking view, the commodity of most use to a poor person.

I saw Citizen Ruth during the first week of its New York run and can recall being accosted at the multiplex door by a Miramax representative who was handing out audience survey forms. “We know this film is controversial,” she told us as we entered. “Please give us your opinion, so we can know how to tell other people about Citizen Ruth.” Such was the puzzle that Miramax had posed for itself; and I don’t believe it ever figured out the answer.

I dredge up this history not to berate the company but to suggest that, mounds of publicity to the contrary, “Miramax” is not the equivalent of “Abracadabra.” It’s merely the name of a business, run by people with particular tastes and talents. Yet when this one firm is made into the paragon of the “independent” distributor (as it tends to be, in the New York Times as much as the trade papers), its preference for the cheerful, the sentimental, the just-slightly-daring begins to turn into an industry standard, to be emulated by the former October, Fine Line, Fox Searchlight and Screen Gems (divisions, respectively, of Universal, Time Warner, Twentieth Century Fox and Sony).

Citizen Ruth did not fit that mini-major standard. Now, it seems, Payne’s new film, Election, has failed to fit the standard for big studio releases. It has received some excellent reviews and is becoming fodder for Op-Ed writers; but Variety says the picture is a disappointment, and so (to the industry) it must be.

By a curious coincidence (as Truffaut used to say), Payne’s dilemma is mirrored within Election. This comedy of resentment, based upon a book by Tom Perrotta and written for the screen by Payne and Jim Taylor, happens to concern a young woman’s relentless striving to be number one (like Coca-Cola, to use her own analogy). It’s also about the growing desperation of one of her high school teachers, as he understands he’ll never even be Pepsi.

As you may already know, the film’s bootstrapper is eleventh grader Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), who in her self-improving, self-advancing drive is determined to become the next school president. She’s a girl who can’t leave herself alone, or anyone else for that matter. You’ll notice she’s always changing her hairstyle, pushing it toward some never-to-be-attained ideal. She busies herself similarly with people, who must perpetually be rearranged into props for Tracy Flick’s career.

I’ve noticed that most commentators on Election have dwelt on Tracy’s awfulness–a quality that does, in fact, echo throughout the picture like the twang of a rubber band, or the Nebraska accent that Reese Witherspoon affects. But Election also acknowledges the anxiety that lies beneath Tracy’s enameled pertness. You get a sense of the trouble when she’s collecting nominating signatures for her candidacy, using as bait a bowl filled with sticks of chewing gum. When a kid grabs a handful in passing, Tracy suddenly drops her bright smile to chase the miscreant halfway down the hall. “It’s one per customer!” she shouts–and if you’ve been paying attention, you understand she’s angry because she couldn’t afford more than that. This campaign has stretched her budget to the limit.

The dirty secret of Election is that Tracy has every right to bear a grudge. She knows there is no such thing as fairness at George Washington Carver High School (how’s that for a striver’s name?)–particularly because the civics teacher and student government adviser, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), treats her as if she were something that sticks out and so must be pounded down.

The film is not too delicate to point out that the thing that really demands pounding lies between McAllister’s legs. But out of a frustration he can’t even admit to, this man who no longer notices his wife (or the dusty Ford he drives, or the shirts that will disintegrate with two more washings) chooses Tracy as the symbol of all evil. He decides to rig the election against her. To begin, he recruits an opponent: the school’s football hero, a young man from a wealthy family, who radiates a bland beneficence. Why not? He already enjoys, without effort, everything Tracy is scrambling to get.

I will not dwell on the identity and motives of the third candidate in the election (the teen lesbian anarchist to whom Election gives its heart). Nor will I detail Payne’s unerring sense of place (which was evident before in Citizen Ruth, with its landscape of power lines, sheds and chain-link fences) or his use of the garbage can as visual motif. My purpose is to address the realistic basis of Tracy’s rage to succeed, and the corresponding realism of McAllister’s rage against her.

Translate a student-government presidency into film-industry terms. It might be likened to a distribution deal with Miramax. That’s what Tracy (considered as a filmmaker) would want at this stage in her career: validation by a mini-major, with a shot later on at the big time. And what in Election represents the big time? It’s the worldly goods of the football hero–goods that ostensibly can be earned, but that more often are attained by accident of birth. Let’s say Election is the story of how Tracy, against considerable odds and at great cost to her soul, gets her Miramax contract. By the end, she might even be set to nail down a deal with a major.

And here’s Alexander Payne, who has gone the same route–though Miramax, for him, must have offered little satisfaction, and to Paramount (it seems) he’s no football hero. Caught in between, he’s now given us a howling comedy that passes itself off as a high school pageant. Laugh if you dare.