Kid Candidate doesn’t have as inclusive an eye as you’d like, but it still manages a cutting depiction of the institutional rot deep in the core of American politics.
Modern American politics are, needless to say, a raging dumpster fire; bad news for the country, but great news for documentarians who have been busily churning out films on the dire state of affairs. These films of course range from rudimentary, PSA-style docs that take a surface-level look at issues of the day to more incisive works that thoughtfully examine our national political landscape. Jasmine Stodel’s Kid Candidate doesn’t really fit into either of those categories — and perhaps for that reason it’s one of the most memorable and unique docs from this broader genre to come along in recent years. The film follows 24-year-old musician Hayden Pedigo, who’s on a quest to become Amarillo, Texas’s youngest serving city councilman. It begins as something of a hodgepodge — with a series of viral, satirical campaign ads — but soon shifts focus and becomes a real-life David and Goliath underdog story, as Pedigo takes on Amarillo’s deeply entrenched political machine and their backers at the conservative Amarillo Matters PAC, who seem to own the whole city. Frustrated by what he sees as inaction from an insular city council, driven only by self-interest, Pedigo becomes determined to be the candidate of the people, targeting the city’s historically marginalized, young, and minority populations to make a tangible difference in his community. And while his candidacy displays many of the hallmarks of the contemporary social justice movement, Pedigo himself is a curiously apolitical figure; his nebulous ideology and his unwillingness to take a firm stance on any issue that he deems “too controversial” belie a genuine willingness to listen and learn from his constituents. Pedigo may ultimately not be ready for the office that he seeks — as the toll that the campaign takes on his emotional well-being throughout this film clearly demonstrates — but there’s something undeniably fascinating about Stodel’s real-life Mr.-Smith-goes-to-City-Hall-instead-of-Washington.
Because it clocks in at barely over an hour, Kid Candidate can admittedly sometimes feel like a documentary short that just runs very long, rather than a full-fledged feature. The lack of specificity about Pedigo himself becomes frustrating in the face of the many very distinct issues that face Amarillo. Stodel makes up for this, largely, by presenting her film as an exploration of the oft-overlooked value behind the processes of local American politics — as viewed through the lens of this particular quirky candidate. The mayor of Amarillo and other elected officials are all given a voice, and Stodel offers no explicit judgment — but to most, it will be clear that the politicians’ stubborn adherence to status quo and ignorance of reality (naturally cloaked in vague religious pablum about “doing God’s will”) serves to dispel the American right’s aura of victimhood when contrasted with the actual, tangible marginalization seen in minority communities living in the city’s neglected outskirts. As the old adage goes — all politics are local. The stranglehold on the town exercised by Amarillo Matters makes this painfully clear in its dedication to upholding the quality of life for the few at the expense of the many. Kid Candidate takes a microcosm of American politics and uses it to display the institutional rot deep within its core; that it does so with such wit and charm is a testament to Stodel’s prowess as a filmmaker. And while one can’t help but wish Pedigo’s story would enmesh more seamlessly with that of the underrepresented Black and Somali immigrant communities in Amarillo, Kid Candidate nevertheless gets at the heart of some pressing societal concerns that often get lost in the bombast of our politics at a national level.
Originally published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.