Swing Vote

3 Stars – Challenging

When parents struggle with an addiction, it is their children who suffer by losing their childhood. Often having to fill the role of the parent as they "make life work" for their impaired father or mother, this "parentified child" can appear to have capabilities far beyond their years. Looking for a functioning adult to admire and help them make sense out of life, such a child can attach themselves to a teacher and accept that teacher's passion as their own. This is what happens to Molly Johnson (Madeline Carroll) in Joshua Michael Stern's second film as director, "Swing Vote."

Molly is the daughter of Bud Johnston (Kevin Costner) and lives with him in a trailer park in Texico, New Mexico. A single parent whose wife has left him, Bud is grieving the loss of his wife Larissa (Mare Winningham) by masking his pain with alcohol. Larissa is battling her own addictions, which caused her to leave her husband and daughter to "pursue a singing career." The result is disappointing for the parents but devastating for their daughter. As Molly prepares Bud's breakfast and attempts to get him out of bed from his hangover, it is clear that though she loves her father, he has lost his ability to care for her and his alcohol addiction has caused Molly to look to others for guidance.

The adult role model Molly has chosen is her teacher, Mrs. Abernathy (Mary Sue Evans). Teaching Molly the importance of civic responsibility, Mrs. Abernathy has convinced Molly of the importance of voting. Having assigned her student the task of asking her father about his political views, it is clear that Molly knows far more than Bud about the upcoming Presidential election. Asking him to meet her at the polling place after work begins an adventure that, though extremely unlikely, sets the stage for Bud to be the single voter who will choose the next President.

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Though we won't spoil the way the plot unfolds, the twisted humor of the film is based on the stereotype that politicians, or at least their campaign managers, are willing to do anything to be elected. The irony of this is amplified to absurd extremes as we see the Democratic candidate Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) filming a graphic ad against abortion and the Republican candidate Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) dedicating the river Bud fishes in as a national preserve rather than using it as an energy source.

A final lesson in the film is Molly's concern for her father's love life. Again showing her overly developed feeling of responsibility, Molly uses the ambition of a beautiful novice newscaster, Kate Madison (Paula Patton), to get her together with her father. The predicable outcome of this attempt collides with Bud's need to become sober and responsible for Molly's sake.

That any of us would find it overwhelming to be the person who chooses the next President of our nation is a fascinating premise which is actually a backdrop for a far more interesting study in family dynamics. As a study of one dysfunctional family, it is a film worth seeing.

Discussion: 1. When the candidates changed their promises to get Bud's vote, they were under the guidance of campaign managers. Do you believe we should change the way we elect Presidents? What would you change?

2. The overly-responsible behavior of Molly included a routine that she and Bud would perform to fool social services who would come to see if Molly was safe. How do you think we can help children who are not cared for by their parents if the children "fake it"?

3. The temptation that Kate experiences to secretly tape Molly's conversation when she comes to her out of sincere need presents the reality of "television news." What do you believe we could do to help change this practice of using people's pain and intruding on their privacy to make news?

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