American local elections are a seething hotbed of intrigue and conflict, as city councillors and sheriffs, school-board presidents and mayors battle for dominance over their petty patch of political turf. The true story behind ‘Grassroots’ is a prime example: in 2001, shiftless Seattle music journalist Grant Cogswell decided to run for office against incumbent city councilman Richard McIver, the only black candidate in the district. Running on a platform of public transport improvement, Cogswell garnered unexpected support from his peers, the city’s huge population of young, plaid-wearing, goatee-stroking coffee drinkers.
Adapted from Phil Campbell’s campaign memoir, Stephen Gyllenhaal’s film confidently and entertainingly dramatises the ensuing battle, making smart points about class, age and race in America, and having a few laughs along the way. Jason Biggs plays Campbell, a fellow journalist roped in to act as campaign manager for Cogswell (a wonderfully scrawny and petulant Joel David Moore). But when their efforts begin to gather unexpected momentum, Campbell finds himself swept away on a tide of youthful enthusiasm and grandstanding, pre-Obama hope-for-change.
The film never quite achieves the same momentum, content to trundle through the main events in the story, offering comic asides and emotional beats where necessary. The female characters are generally shortchanged, notably Cobie Smulders as a fellow activist, but the Cogswell campaign team are wonderfully realised, a goofy gaggle of eager-to-please college scruffs high on the promise of success. The result is an enjoyable, fitfully engaging but ever-so-slightly forgettable minor-key political comedy.