A recent student body election at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School is the subject of this solid if recalcitrant documentary, in which director Caroline Suh abstains from drawing any conclusions. No trenchant insights into the democratic process are forthcoming and, contrary to the rather smug attitude exuded about Stuyvesant’s academic reputation, there’s no reason to think equally compelling contests aren’t being held in schools—public and private—throughout the country. The release of Frontrunners is pegged to this historic presidential election season, but it’s mainly of local interest—as ammunition for Gotham boosters and the next “I Love New York” campaign.
A quote from political-consultant-turned-prognosticator and 1964 Stuyvesant grad Dick Morris—“It’s the hardest race I ever fought” —opens the movie and is belied by what follows since only one of the candidates (the eventual winner) works especially hard to get elected. Morris is referring to his own political career at Stuyvesant and isn’t involved in the election we watch unfold. Apparently, much has changed in 40-plus years. For instance, it’s doubtful his contemporaries uttered the word “like” as often as the best and brightest of today. Ignoring statistics about the selectivity (hence the elite reputation) of the institution—only 3 percent of the 25,000 who take the entrance exam each year are admitted—you might think Stuyvesant was located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. No one encountered, least of all those running for student body president or vice president, could be considered a dummy. The aspiring leaders at the top of the four tickets are: overconfident Mike Zaytsev, overextended Hannah Freiman, calculating George Zisiadis and, finally, jock Alex Leonard, who chooses not to campaign, relying instead on word of mouth and his renown as a basketball player in a sea of brainiacs.
After the scene is set and the candidates sit down with their running mates in front of Suh’s camera, a primary election takes place to see which two will move on. We’re there as the votes are tabulated and later learn that irregularities concerning 80 uncounted ballots don’t alter the outcome. The spotlight turns to the two budding pols left standing. They talk strategy, engage in old-fashioned campaigning—handing out leaflets, pressing the flesh—prepare for a debate that’s broadcast on closed-circuit TV, and vie for the crucial endorsement of the student newspaper.
Suh does a decent job conveying the inherent drama of the horse race, without resorting to anything exploitative or obtrusive and without the benefit of narration, her questions on the soundtrack or any contextual ornamentation other than hip music tracks. Her reticence has a downside, however. Most notably, she doesn’t explore the election’s obvious racial and ethnic dimension, an issue the candidates and their peers raise multiple times.
Frontrunners could also use a perspective from outside the school. Commentary by the student affairs adviser, Mr. Polazzo, is interesting enough, as are the reflections of a student pundit, the candidates’ friends and students encountered in the hallways. Nevertheless, Suh might have put past student politicians and esteemed graduates, such as Mr. Morris, on camera to reflect on their time at Stuyvesant. Or, she might have gone further afield to collect corroborative testimony from college admissions officials for instance, concerning the quality of Stuyvesant scholars.
Staying on campus, she definitely missed an opportunity by not interviewing the mostly quiet, retiring VP candidates on their own. Some of their facial expressions as they listen to their running mates describe their platforms scream for follow up. The insight that emerges from Frontrunners is that, in the high-pressure and hyper-competitive environment of Stuyvesant student body, elections are really all about resume building and getting into the best college. Many of the students seem to be of this mildly cynical opinion. And it’s hard not to conclude the candidates have self-centered and myopic motives. In sum, Frontrunners is like the famous New Yorker magazine cover that shows the Big Apple looming in the foreground and the rest of the country as insignificant specks in the distance. All politics may be local, but that doesn’t mean today’s frontrunners will necessarily be tomorrow’s leaders.
Director: Caroline Suh
Producer: Erika Frankel
Running time: 83 min.
Release date: October 15 ltd.