In the town of Texico, New Mexico, lives Bud Johnson (Costner), the epitome of white-trash America. His slovenly and irresponsible ways haven’t stopped him from raising his precocious progeny, Molly (Carroll), who plays the part of the parent in the Johnson family, preparing food and registering Bud to vote. When Bud forgets to meet Molly to do his civic duty, Molly tries to cast a ballot in her father’s stead. Unfortunately, the voting booth gets unplugged before the vote can be recorded and “Bud’s” vote doesn’t count toward the results of the presidential election.
Turns out that one uncounted vote is the tie-breaker that will decide the fate of New Mexico’s five electoral votes. When the government discovers the anomaly, they give Bud an arbitrary 10 days to recast his ballot. This week and a half is ample time for the incumbent Andrew Boone (Grammer) and challenger Donald Greenleaf (Hopper) to do whatever it takes to woo Bud and win that deciding vote.
From the Republican Boone touting the virtues of gay marriage to the Democratic Greenleaf airing a mildly disturbing pro-life commercial, the candidates reconfigure their entire political belief systems to accommodate Bud’s, at best, apathetic views.
Swing Vote’s best performance comes from Carroll, entirely at home as a brilliant girl trying to do right by her father. Her advanced vocabulary and smart-alecky remarks seem completely natural coming out of her 12-year-old mouth. But Costner’s stilted yokel and Grammer and Hopper’s one-note politicos fail to impress.
Luckily, the subpar acting doesn’t distract from Swing Vote’s entertainment value. The film provides laughs, tears and a modicum of political commentary. Although it drags at times, Molly and her interactions with Bud are enough to keep the audience watching. In fact, the real story is their father-daughter relationship and how, despite his superficial negligence, Bud truly loves his clever kid.
While the brief moments of political criticism seem like an afterthought in a film that’s based on a botched election, at least Swing Vote’s family values platform makes it a winner.