Frontrunners is a documentary—done in the modern fashion with no narration, no interviewer, and only minimal explanatory captions—about a race for student president at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

Stuyvesant, the film lets us know in multiple ways, is an elite high school that accepts a tiny percentage of applicants each year. If it’s not the top high school in the country, it’s up there.

The obvious comparison—for me anyway; these films are so obscure I assume few people have seen either, let alone both—is The Third Monday in October. The latter is a documentary about four middle school elections.

I expected that the main difference between the films would be that the students in Frontrunners would be much more impressive than those in The Third Monday in October, but frankly the difference is pretty modest. What difference there is can plausibly be attributed to the fact that the students in Frontrunners are a few years older. But I figured when you combine the age factor with the fact that Stuyvesant students are allegedly as good as any high school students in the country, there would be a far more dramatic difference.

If the film had never mentioned that this is some kind of elite school, I doubt I would have guessed it. These students don’t seem atypical of high school age kids.

One of the things that stood out to me about The Third Monday in October is that the teachers and staff micromanage the whole election process to an infuriating degree, allowing virtually no freedom of expression from the candidates. Another is that evidently little, or probably nothing, is at stake; the winners have no authority over anything, so the whole thing is just practice at winning a popularity contest, should the kids enter into some kind of career one day where the skills developed through such practice matter. Another—no doubt related to those two—is that there is no substance to their campaigning, they take no positions on “issues” because there aren’t any, so it’s all about image and name recognition and such.

How does Frontrunners compare in these respects?

As to the first, there is no evidence of anything like the degree of adult control of every aspect of the process here as in those middle school elections. One teacher who speaks on camera a fair amount seems to be some sort of advisor or overseer of the election, but he doesn’t censor every word coming out of the candidates’ mouths. (He actually comes across as kind of a goofball. Probably a decent guy though, and may well be an excellent teacher, I don’t know.) The students seem to be trusted considerably more to campaign the way they want to campaign.

As to the second, obviously no school (well, other than a Sudbury-type school) is really going to give kids more than minimal authority or autonomy, but I was pleasantly surprised that the student offices at Stuyvesant aren’t purely ceremonial, and the elections aren’t purely make believe with no value except to provide practice. The elected students have at least some say over how a certain amount of the budget is spent, and it’s not a trivial amount. Evidently it’s in the high five figures. They decide how much of this money to allocate to various trips and dances and such, as well as projects proposed by students. We see, for instance, one student requesting a certain amount of money to publish some kind of periodical in French, I guess for a French club or some kind of extracurricular academic group like that.

As to the third, since the offices do matter to at least some modest degree, there is a corresponding amount of substance to the campaigning. The candidates talk about what they think the spending priorities should be and such.

Though truth be told, it’s still mostly about image and the kind of superficial bullshit that adult elections largely hinge on. And most or all of the kids running are probably doing so more for practice or to have something to put on college admission forms than for any reason intrinsic to holding these offices they’re running for.

So a lot of what they do—to their discredit—mimics real campaigning. For example, the candidate that I think most people would identify as the most impressive often speaks in amateurish politician-like rhetoric. Some of it makes sense, some of it doesn’t, but his philosophy—which again is very common in the adult world, especially from “successful” people—is to not get too bogged down in the quality of what he says but just to always have something to say that sounds at least vaguely like a relevant thing that a smart person would say, whether it is or isn’t. So, never admit you don’t know something, never pause to think, but just maintain your poise, adopt a confident tone, and speak as if you know what you’re talking about.

(I’m not saying he does that well, only that that’s what he tries to do. In fact he’s more inarticulate than articulate.)

In the “debate,” which is taped and then played on TV screens in classrooms for the students, his prepared “closing remarks” are a classic example of completely empty rhetoric that any candidate in any race could utter. Basically it’s Reagan’s “morning in America”-type malarkey, just delivered much more clumsily. In his 30 seconds he talks about how this election can be about “raising the bar,” that by choosing him voters are expressing their preference for raising the bar, whereas if they vote for his opponent they are accepting that the bar will remain where it is, “or even be lowered,” whatever any of that even means.

But apparently, substance-free and inane as it is, it appealed to at least some people. His opponent even praises it later as a “strong” closing.

My favorite moment from him though—not to pick on this same guy too much, but whatever—is when he explains a campaign decision he’s made by saying, “The reason I’m doing it this way is fourfold. There are a couple reasons for it,” after which he proceeds to list three reasons, hems and haws for a while trying to remember the fourth, and finally admits, “I guess the reason is threefold.”

But I want to come back to this point about how impressive the students—the candidates, but also the students at this exclusive school in general—are or are not.

It was interesting just watching them like an anthropologist or some social scientist—maybe a psychologist. Seeing how people at this stage of development, in this social environment, behave and speak.

I think what stood out the most to me is how self-conscious they mostly came across. If anything they were more self-conscious on camera than the middle schoolers in The Third Monday in October.

I don’t think it’s just camera-induced self-consciousness though. I think when you really observe people of that age closely, there just isn’t a lot of social confidence to them. They’re still learning how to interact with people, how to speak in social situations. They seem to be constantly adjusting in response to how their peers are reacting. Not that adults don’t do that too, but I think the average person this age does it to a greater extreme. They’re “performing” to a greater degree, and mostly not at all confident about how well they’re performing, so there tends to be a lot of little self-deprecating remarks, nervous laughter, etc.

Actually these kids laugh quite frequently, which is interesting because they virtually never say anything funny. (Sharp wit, with very rare exceptions, is something that seems to only come with age.) The laughter is a social lubricant. They laugh because they’re ill-at-ease, and they’re trying to put themselves and those around them more at ease by keeping things light, and trying to relax and show that they’re extroverted and social.

There’s just a real awkwardness and lack of confidence to most of them most of the time.

I think that’s one of the things that TV and movies consistently get wrong about kids. Or at least it’s one of the things that’s least realistic about kids on TV and in movies—to say they get it “wrong” implies they’re striving for accuracy, which cannot be assumed.

Fictional kids tend to speak with the same confidence and self-assurance as adults. Rarely do you see them, like in Frontrunners, shyly looking down in their lap and trying to suppress a giggle because they don’t know what they’re supposed to say, constantly glancing at everyone around them for affirmation that what they’re doing and saying isn’t straying too far from the norm to elicit disapproval, pontificating in an imitation adult way that is as far from the real thing as a 4 year old playing dress-up in Mommy’s clothes, etc.

Kids, even 16 and 17 year olds at the supposedly highest high school in the country, tend to be more dopey, awkward, unconfident, and obsessed with their peers’ opinion of them even than we probably usually notice.

Frontrunners is entertaining and thought-provoking enough about child development and such to be worth at least a modest thumbs up. I’d put it at a comparable level as The Third Monday in October. Maybe I’d rank The Third Monday in October just a hair higher if someone could only see one of them, but I saw them so far apart that it’s hard for me to compare them with confidence.


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