During the closing weeks of the fiercely fought 2004 Bush vs. Kerry campaign, 11 eighth graders in four diverse schools battle it out for student council president, in Vanessa Roth’s eye-opening docu “Third Monday in October.” Even predictable class and ethnic differences manifest themselves in ingenuous ways; the kids, at age 13, are awkwardly poised between reciting what they’ve been taught and expressing opinions of their own. Though more diffuse and slightly less nail-bitingly suspenseful than the spelling-bee faceoffs in “Spellbound,” this highly entertaining and consistently surprising docu could draw similar auds.
From the opening montage, helmer Roth and editor Lindsay Crystal establish a visual strategy allowing them to cut almost seamlessly from one school to play up similarities and differences in the students’ elections.
A flurry of endearingly earnest or ridiculous moments — unlike the ongoing, grimly contested national election — initially places the student council races within the realm of the comparatively innocuous.
Roth then introduces the four specific schools in question and the players, with each school’s election given its own dramatic arc.
The poorly endowed Francisco Middle School in a working class, largely immigrant area of San Francisco, yields two friendly, shyly soft-spoken rivals.
At Hall Middle School in affluent Marin County, on the other hand, four candidates present themselves with dramatic flourishes, from Sam the Super Action Man (in costume and cape) to a laid-back Ferris Buehler-type, to the blonde cutie who runs on a platform of better Jamba Juice flavors.
Two articulate lads at the educationally advanced St. Stephen Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, when not amicably debating the finer points of socialism, offer a concise contrast in style — one is a forceful dynamo, while the other is calculatingly easygoing.
Three best friends, cheerleaders at the Inman Middle School in Atlanta, all enter the field, whereupon their relationship quickly disintegrates under campaign pressures.
The kids’ levels of political abilities vary greatly. One savvy Atlanta aspirant has a forceful mother who subjects her to pop-quizzes at home and electioneers for her outside the school auditorium. The losing San Francisco hopeful forlornly trudges home to his Filipino parents, imagining he still may have a shot at the U.S. presidency.
Tech credits are pro, Crystal’s kinetic editing interrelating well with Dana Sano’s and Spring Aspers’ gently ironic pop music choices.