NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation has a running gag about “Ice Town,” the winter sports complex that series regular Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) tried to build when he was miraculously elected mayor of his hometown at the age of 18. Ice Town was, of course, a total failure, and Ben was impeached for blowing the town’s budget on an unnecessary and extravagant project. The gag works perfectly on a show that thrives on making fun of its flawed and endearing characters, but it also paints a picture of the stereotypes that young people in politics often face. The younger generations have a lot to offer when it comes to local government, but opposing campaigns will often portray young candidates as reckless, irrational, and totally incapable of making decisions. When experimental musician Hayden Pedigo ran for city council in Amarillo, Texas, at the age of 24, he certainly had to work much harder than other candidates to garner public trust. A 68-minute documentary exploring his campaign, Kid Candidate, screened at this year’s SXSW Film Festival.
Granted, Pedigo set himself up for a difficult run with his initial spoof campaign video, which serves as the opener for Kid Candidate and gets us wondering how serious this guy actually is. In this grunge-style political ad, he announces his candidacy while carrying a tape measure and throwing a metal folding chair around a park. As the documentary continues, we learn that the campaign video was, initially, a complete joke created by Pedigo and one of his filmmaker friends. But after it went viral, Pedigo realized that there might really be a place for him in local politics. There were a handful of issues in Amarillo that the town’s leaders continued to ignore, and a younger representative with a fresh perspective might be just what the town needed. Directed by Jasmine Stodel, Kid Candidate is about much more than an ambitious young person’s pursuit of change. It’s also about Amarillo, economic inequality, and the barriers that prevent progress in our country as a whole.
Kid Candidate starts off fun and lighthearted, introducing Pedigo as a jokester who begins a political campaign just for the fun of it. With the rock-n-roll soundtrack and the colorful graphics in the beginning, you might think you’re in for an adventurous and satirical documentary, something along the lines of The Yes Men (2003). But throughout the course of the film, it becomes clear that Pedigo has honest intentions, and that an inexperienced kid is the least of Amarillo’s problems. While Pedigo might be the vehicle for Kid Candidate’s story, the film’s real subject is greed within politics. As the documentary delves deeper into the difficulties of Pedigo’s run, it shifts attention away from his age and toward the big roadblock that any underdog candidate in Amarillo would face: economic inequality. While Pedigo must have been questioned about a number of different topics during his run, Kid Candidate mostly shows clips of him addressing his concerns about poverty in Amarillo. It also juxtaposes interview clips of residents who live in poorer parts of the community with clips of city leaders who have been in power for years and have the money to stay there. Although Kid Candidate starts out as a documentary about a young politician, it slowly and effectively shifts its narrative and message to be about money.
As Pedigo learns during his campaign, one of the barriers to economic progress in our country is the fact that a large chunk of the nation sees the word “progress” itself as a red flag. After he makes a speech at a rally, Pedigo is confronted by an angry Amarillo citizen who questions him because he used the word “progressive.” Realizing he’s made a mistake using such a charged political buzzword, Pedigo responds by saying he simply wants to see progress and positive changes in Amarillo. Kid Candidate as a whole uses a similar strategy, avoiding empty political jargon that would peg Pedigo as a Republican or Democrat. With political documentaries, it can be easy to start making judgements about the film as a whole as soon as we figure out whether or not the film’s subject belongs to the same political party as us. But Kid Candidate keeps us interested in its message by highlighting Pedigo’s efforts to develop his own unique beliefs and showing him in conflict with people from both sides of the political spectrum.
The main political foils to the young and ambitious Pedigo are Jeff Blackburn, a lawyer who acts as Pedigo’s mentor, and Ginger Nelson, the mayor of Amarillo. As a crass, disillusioned, and blunt guy with an opinion on everything, Blackburn puts Pedigo’s campaign into perspective. Of course, Kid Candidate sets us up to root for Pedigo, but it also offers us an alternative point of view with Blackburn’s harsh and critical commentary. As for Nelson, Kid Candidate focuses less on her policies and actions and more on the financial support she receives from Amarillo Matters, an organization that casts the unofficial deciding vote in local elections by donating to certain campaigns. The documentary highlights Nelson’s claims to a “faith-based” platform, juxtaposing these claims with the financial corruption behind the scenes. Kid Candidate successfully reveals the need for patience and open-mindedness on all points of the political spectrum by comparing Pedigo’s middle-ground position with these two opposite-minded foils.
Unlike in the Ice Town gag from Parks and Recreation, it’s the experienced, grown-up leaders in this real-life story who put Amarillo’s money towards questionable projects. Kid Candidate grabs our attention with a fun story about a quirky young candidate in order to get us thinking about other political issues (namely, financial corruption). The 24-year-old Pedigo may not have been the most impactful young candidate ever, but Kid Candidate works to remind us that an overeager kid with good intentions is a lot less harmful than an immoral adult with years of experience.
Screening at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival on March 16th, 2021.
Available on VOD and digital July 2nd, 2021.
Kid Candidate is a Gunpowder & Sky production, in association with XTR.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.