At first all he wanted to do was make some dang videos with his friends. But when Hayden Pedigo’s Gummo-inspired, goofball campaign ad parody went viral on Facebook, he realized that he actually didn’t like the way his home city of Amarillo was being run, and thought maybe he actually had some pretty good ideas on how to change it. Why not do it for real? So went the thinking, and Jasmine Stodel’s documentary (her first feature) about Pedigo’s quixotic run ends up playing like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington meets American Movie with a dash of Wes Anderson (not to mention Brigsby Bear, another movie about the joy of small-town oddballs making art together).
Kid Candidate, from Gunpowder & Sky (which has a first-look deal with HBO, though no release date has yet been set) follows this surprise Amarillo City Council campaign by 24-year-old Hayden Pedigo, and a large part of what makes Kid Candidate so compelling is Pedigo himself, a wry but earnest Texan who looks like if Owen Wilson’s personality was transmogrified into Michael Cera’s body with that machine from The Fly.
The movie wouldn’t have a hook if Pedigo’s video wasn’t funny, but it is, not to mention sort of sweet and innocent, like Pedigo himself. An “acoustic guitarist and soundscape composer,” according to his website, Pedigo is a home-schooled kid from rural Texas, whose relationship with his religious parents is somewhat strained, who escaped into making music and movies and art during an isolated childhood. Though somewhat shy and introverted by nature, Pedigo turns out to be some kind of public speaking idiot savant. His reticence often gives way to genuine passion when he talks about his town, such that his entire run is like watching a human seedling blossom into full flower. All he needed was a purpose.
All of Hayden’s sweet earnestness and almost preternatural aversion to controversy might make for a saccharine movie if it wasn’t for local civil rights attorney Jeff Blackburn, an absolute gem of a gruff shit talker who always seems to have vape smoke coming out of his mouth. Who says, upon hearing of Pedigo’s candidacy, “Why am I supposed to vote for this kid? Because he’s young? Well if that’s the case, why not just run a baby?”
Of course, Jeff Blackburn is a classic humbug with a heart of gold, who gets inspired by Hayden’s earnest speeches and eventually becomes the JK Simmons to Pedigo’s Michael Cera. Kid Candidate would be remarkably easy to adapt into a quirky Sundance comedy, it practically casts itself. On that note, I could easily envision Carrie Coon as Amarillo’s loopy incumbent mayor, Ginger Nelson, who cries crocodile tears when recounting the unfair attacks on her that some kids made in a Facebook sketch. Along with the other members of Amarillo’s City Council, all endorsed by Amarillo’s only PAC, Nelson describes her ascendance to the office she now occupies as if it were divinely ordained. Her view of politics, apparently shared by the rest of her Amarillo Matters PAC mates, is like if a Medieval monarch had his royal quarters festooned in inspirational cat posters. Her personality evokes a thousand petty tyrants.
Hayden Pedigo wouldn’t be a good hero without some villains, and Amarillo’s ruling class — beef, banking, and oil magnates among them, bankrolling a slate of “business-friendly” Bible thumpers maintaining the status quo — provides them in spades. Pedigo’s earnest forthrightness couldn’t contrast more sharply with Nelson et al’s spacey-eyed declarations, about carrying out God’s will when they decided to fund a new scoreboard for the baseball stadium rather than maintain a beloved city pool in a now-neglected part of town.
We see how the political sausage is made when we follow Hayden as he gladhands at local events, goes doorknocking, and general forces himself to do the things that he, and virtually any right-thinking human being, wants more than anything not to do. It’s an uplifting personal journey wrapped in an eye-opening political exposé, all with the backdrop of a thoroughly quirky and idiosyncratic setting. This is the essential dichotomy of Kid Candidate, watching a right-thinking, essentially kindhearted person attempt to force himself into the soul-stealing business of politics. It’s funnier because it’s local, but we can extrapolate, and the implications for our larger political system… they ain’t good, folks.
To have a person like Hayden juxtaposed with the nuts and bolts of a political campaign is a rare thing, and only happened, and only really could happen, by accident. Kid Candidate explores how office seeking works, as it currently stands, and who it attracts. It’s all enough to make you wonder if maybe we’d be better off just choosing citizens to lead at random (maybe we could have a referendum on them six months later?). A random draw couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have now.