Up until, ahem, recently, “joke” candidates seemed to be the reserve of British politics. We’ve had everything from Count Binface to H’Angus the Monkey; The No Fruit Out of Context Party to the Monster Raving Looney Party. All of whom stood, in some way, to make a mockery of the political system. Not because they didn’t believe in democracy, but because they wanted to throw the spotlight on how things are really run. (Although, in some cases, it really just was for a laugh.)

And it’s almost this premise that forms the basis of Jasmine Stodel’s documentary, Kid Candidate. Stodel is making her directorial debut, here, as she charts the rise of Amarillo City Councilman candidate, Hayden Pedigo. Pedigo – a 24 year old Amarillo native – “fell into” politics by way of viral YouTube videos. Seeking to emulate the visual stylings of Harmony Korine, Pedigo dressed up as a wannabe politician to film a short video. Realising that, actually, he didn’t like the way his city was being run, he decided to run a campaign and attempt to break into politics as the youngest candidate in the district.

The documentary opens by scrolling through comments on Pedigo’s YouTube channel which will pretty much set the tone of opinion for the rest of the film. “I think it would be fun!” says one user. “You are everything that is wrong with this country,” says another. Pedigo’s goal – as naïve as may initially seem – is to encourage young people to vote; incentivise young talent to stay in the district; and have funding directed to the areas of the city where it is needed most. Previous political regimes – run by a wealthy elite – have seen rising food poverty, prostitution and drug dealing. Young graduates work multiple low-paying jobs before either turning to crime or leaving the city.

This neatly sets up a classic “good versus evil” narrative that runs throughout. Pedigo, the bright eyed political ingenue, seeks real and meaningful change. His supporters – largely from burned out, disengaged communities – will this change on his behalf. Facing this down is the might of the incumbent city councilmen and women, backed by wealthy donors, keen on preserving middle class areas and business interests such as beef, banking and oil. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a contemporary reboot of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, with Pedigo every inch the “swell and shucks” Jimmy Stewart persona.

This is furthered by a glimpse into Pedigo’s upbringing. Homeschooled by deeply religious parents, Pedigo speaks of isolation and hints at emotional neglect. The tears that he blinks away as he discusses his estrangement from his parents are clear signs of unresolved trauma. It’s rare to see a politician in the making open up in such a vulnerable manner. There are no campaign slogans or well-thought-out soundbites here.

The array of talking heads that Stodel presents feels like a real cross-section of America. There’s the slightly wild-eyed Mayor who cries and believes God called her to office. There’s the straight shooting, constantly vaping Jeff Blackburn, Hayden’s volunteer campaign manager. There are pastors, NAACP leaders, radio DJs, lawyers, historians, writers, politicians, local residents and young graduates. There’s a real warmth in the local South Sudanese community and in those he meets whilst canvassing door-to-door. Those who are benefiting from the current regime speak of it in glowing terms; the disenfranchised long for change. “A city that is only progressing in parts isn’t progressing as a city,” Pedigo echoes.

Whilst Pedigo – and candidates like him – may not seem like an obvious threat to political structures that are centuries old, it is clear that his campaign has caused a real stir in the community. Refusing all funding and donations, he is seen as entering politics “for the right reasons”. His opinions are not for sale, as one mural proudly declares. And, in a city where 40% of the 200,000 strong population is under the age of 30, his candidacy makes a lot more sense. He literally could be the political voice of a generation. “I’m making rich, old people in Amarillo angry because I’m calling out things that they don’t want to talk about,” he reflects.

And – spoilers – in spite of his coming second in the race for City Council, you can see the impact that Pedigo has had on the local community. He has galvanised young voters – turning out to put their cross in the box for the first time – and stirred up calls for real change. He’s inspired other young people to speak passionately about local causes and become involved in grass roots politics. He – and his wife – are committed to continuing to work for a better and fairer Amarillo, in whatever shape that takes.

Stodel has crafted a really insightful and interesting documentary about a level of politics not often seen in the UK. However, the themes of poverty, discrepancy, the wealthy elite and the burned out are utterly universal. Stodel blends the personal and the political to offer up a portrait of a young man who is still unsure of himself, but entirely certain of the change he wants to be in the world.

Rating: ★★½

Gunpowder & Sky will release the documentary KID CANDIDATE On Demand and Digital on July 2, 2021.