SXSW 2021 Review: Jasmine Stodel’s “Kid Candidate” Offers a Smart Look Beyond the Ballot

Hayden Pedigo got into politics by accident, which is about the only way you might expect someone would want to after watching “Kid Candidate.” The 24-year-old from Amarillo, Texas was encouraged to run for office after creating some faux campaign ads with a friend, thinking it might be fun to pretend to be an aspiring mayoral candidate going around the city fixing problems in filmed in the style of Harmony Korine, and once the videos went viral, Pedigo was inspired to actually run for City Council, supported by his wife L’Hannah and an earnest desire to change the city for the better.

Pedigo isn’t overmatched in the ways you might think in “Kid Candidate,” which doesn’t even bother to show the incumbent he’s running against until the race is called and whose oratorical skills lead another candidate during a voter forum to say “If you don’t vote for me, vote for him.” But the question of whether he’s a good candidate or would make good councilperson is largely rendered irrelevant when the film introduces Amarillo Matters, a shadowy political action committee that’s enormously invested in keeping the status quo in the city, a strongly evangelical Christian community that happens to be home to banks that would prefer to keep their business affairs away from scrutiny.

Pedigo isn’t necessarily much different in his beliefs, raised in a deeply religious household himself and describing himself as in the middle politically, but burnt out on politics, fueling a run where a primary issue of his campaign becomes one of greater representation, changing up Amarillo’s representative system from one where the entire city can vote within districts rather than at large. At a slim 67 minutes, “Kid Candidate” doesn’t strive towards looking at the bigger picture, but gets there anyway when all politics are local. Pedigo begins being mentored by Jeff Blackburn, who in the film’s first five minutes calls him a “unwitting dupe,” instantly demonstrating the transactional nature of the game and one can see the compromises that the aspiring council member is asked to make to have a successful campaign start to weigh on him when they make no sense in concert with the reasons he’s running for office.

As Pedigo finds common cause with South Sudanese members of the community who appear to be similarly disengaged, the film recognizes that voter suppression may be an issue at the polls, but it happens long before when the intimidation runs deep, discouraging potential voters from showing up when it’s thought to their vote won’t matter to preemptively eliminating candidates that don’t have the means to turn out the vote. If nothing else, the clear-eyed approach of director Jasmine Stodel yields something to hold onto as members of the community say their vote is “guided by God,” but you’re able to see so many other forces at work. While dark money can never be seen, its impact without even being spent when incumbents never feel threatened by potential challengers is brought to light and while Pedigo’s appeal as a politician may depend on your personal politics, he’s undeniably endearing as a subject and just one reason “Kid Candidate” is ultimately so winning.

“Kid Candidate” will screen at SXSW beginning March 16th at 8 am CST.