By Thomas Puhr.

What is surprising is how the lifelong Amarillo resident leveraged his fifteen minutes of fame to start a legitimate campaign, one which Jasmine Stodel chronicles in the documentary Kid Candidate.”

Hayden Pedigo – a twenty-something musician residing in Amarillo, Texas – became an online sensation when his mock political advertisements for city council blew up on Facebook. In footage seemingly captured by a thirty-year-old JVC camcorder, we see him “mapping out the city” with a flimsy tape measure, attempting to start a lawnmower, or sitting awkwardly in front of town hall – always wearing the same checkered sports coat and multicolored tie. It’s easy to see why the clips went viral; they’re short, strange, and even charming in their low-fi, low-stakes way. What is surprising is how the lifelong Amarillo resident leveraged his fifteen minutes of fame to start a legitimate campaign, one which Jasmine Stodel chronicles in Kid Candidate (2021), which premieres at SXSW.

The documentary’s prescience extends well beyond the confines of small-town Texas (look no further than the 2016 U.S. presidential election for proof of how social media can shape – and, more often than not, distort – political consciousness). Within its 67-minute runtime, Kid Candidate touches on voter suppression within marginalized communities, the ethically-ambiguous terrain of campaign donations, debates over removing Confederate names and symbols from public spaces, and the legalization of recreational marijuana. Feeling overwhelmed? So does Pedigo, who appears increasingly ill-prepared as the potential enormity of his undertaking dawns on him.

But here’s the key: Stodel understands that even an hour-long film would be a slog if its central figure thinks of it all as just some elaborate prank. And despite his lack of political prowess (or an action plan, or clearly-stated opinions on controversial topics), Pedigo is easy to root for. His heart’s in the right place, and he seems like a nice guy. As his wife L’Hannah puts it: “To me, that’s the only qualification. Is that you’re genuine, and you care about the city, and you care about the people. Just don’t be an asshole.” A bit of an oversimplification, yes, but one with a core truth that more politicians should take into account.

It’s probably this likeability that first caught the attention of defense lawyer and activist Jeff Blackburn, the film’s most dynamic commentator. Although he directs a lot of his scathing wit toward Pedigo – early on, he describes him as “a well-meaning, unwitting dupe who has no business – none – thinking he can do anything” – he obviously prefers him to the wealthy, elitist establishment and even becomes a mentor to the young man. In a cringy sequence that had me thinking of American Movie (1999), Stodel cuts from Pedigo arranging a rally at Blackburn’s office – he brags about getting “so many people there that it makes you mad” – to the nearly-empty event. But Blackburn shows a heart when he reassures his young protegee: “As long as there are more people in the audience than there are on the stage, it’s a success.”

Unlike Blackburn, however, the director seems hesitant to criticize her subject. Passing references are made to his being a conservative Christian (he was homeschooled in a strict religious family), but no one ever questions him – at least not on camera – about how these religious beliefs would influence his decisions if elected, or about what his understanding of conservatism even is. For example, Stodel introduces a local controversy surrounding an elementary school named after Robert E. Lee but doesn’t include Pedigo’s take on the matter. Later, when he scores an interview with Tim Heidecker, the latter gently asks him to define his ideology. His response is frustratingly evasive: “I’ve always said that I kind of just exist in the middle; maybe one of those younger people that’s fried on politics.” That’s all well and good (who isn’t fried on politics?), but the question remains: What does this guy really believe in, beyond pat descriptions of wanting his beloved city to make progress?

Some of the film’s strongest moments are when Stodel looks beyond Pedigo and addresses Amarillo’s marginalized populations, such as the predominantly African-American residents of North Heights – a community described as the city’s “food desert” – or the large population of South Sudanese refugees struggling to have their voices heard. One Sudanese interviewee, college student Agol Aloak, describes her frustration with the local government: “To me, it feels like our votes don’t matter. They just want us to feel like we matter…You don’t know my struggles. You don’t want to help me. You just want me to be on your side, so you can be like, ‘Oh look, I’m down.’” Pedigo engages with this community and earns Aloak’s vote, but what’s most inspiring is a caption at the end of the film announcing Aloak’s intentions to run for city council herself.

Pedigo may have lost the election (he came in a distant second; not too shabby, considering his refusal to accept any monetary donations), but his efforts increased civic awareness and engagement, especially among the city’s younger, often politically apathetic constituents. To paraphrase Blackburn, there are now even more people in the audience by the end of this documentary. And that counts for something.

Kid Candidate premieres on VOD and digital on July 2.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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