Politics is always confusing, and in dangerous times, it's probably better to be knowledgeably cynical than gaily ignorant. All by itself, Jason Pollock's The Youngest Candidate ought to be enough to douse the fire of youthful idealism, at least when it comes to electoral politics.
In fact, the film is supposed to be a celebration of youthful idealism, and its failure to live up to its own premise represents a successful plumbing of an age-old and perennially relevant question: Why do people go into politics in the first place? The film follows four political candidates, aged 18 to 20, from disparate parts of the country as they fight uphill battles to attain office. "Remarkable Young People," the film dubs them. Your opinion is likely to differ, and quickly.
Two of the youthful candidates are perfectly pleasant kids: outgoing, curious, and seemingly interested in the public good. Raul de Jesus, an amicable, pudgy 20-year-old running for the mayorship of Hartford, Connecticut, is almost tragically attached to his community. He gives director Pollock a walking tour of Hartford's blighted ghettoes — the projects where he grew up, the street corner where he saw his first dead body — and looking at his punch-drunk body language, it's easy to believe that Hartford's troubles keep him up nights. Then there's George Monger, an 18-year-old city council candidate from Memphis who's plainly supernormal. He's a record producer with his own label; he's literate, articulate, and honestly incredulous when he visits Memphis' most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. "People live in these conditions," he says, gesturing to a shack that has more tarp than roof. The look on his face is half manly anger and half boyish disbelief that the powers-that-be could have allowed such a situation to perpetuate itself for so long.
However, despite their admirable intentions, these candidates never articulate anything resembling a political philosophy, nor do they offer any cogent reason why they should be elected. They do offer vague statements about "change" and about their dislike for "politics as usual," but Monger is nevertheless delighted when a local DJ manages to dredge up a video of his opponent selling sex toys on television. He may be interested in the poor, but he's not at all interested in waging a substantive campaign.
The other two youths are far more troubling. Tiffany Tupper, an 18-year-old woman running for the school board of Hampton Township, Pennsylvania, is bright-eyed and precocious — clearly accustomed to adoring pats on the head from her elders. At one point, while trying to explain what drew her to politics, she expresses disdain for the shallow interests of her fellow teenagers. She never liked "pretending to care" what her peers "did over the weekend." Still, she wants to represent them. She would like to be the curative, she says, but you wonder: How can she represent young people if she holds them all in contempt?
Her talking points throughout the movie are: Young people are too stupid to understand her, though young people deserve a voice. She can't see the contradiction, and she can't string together three sentences without explaining that she really wants to win to "prove people wrong." Without realizing it, she admits over and over that she wants to win an office precisely because she can't stand to lose.
But Tupper is downright responsible next to Ytit Chauhan, 19, running for city council in Atlantic City. You can't help but feel bad for the kid — he spent his childhood bouncing from town to town, parent to parent, until washing up in Atlantic City with his grandparents. The other kids in the documentary keep their families in the loop, drawing on them for support and moral guidance. Chauhan barely sees his grandparents, though he clearly needs them. Canvassing around, practicing "retail politics" in front yards and on street corners, he is met with disinterest, skepticism, and racism. "Are you Pakistani?" asks an old man. "No," Chauhan replies, "I'm Indian." "Oh," says the old guy. "How! All you need is a feather in your hat!"
Chauhan could use some love, but he doesn't get any. He directs the hurt he feels inward, stoking some inner core of Nixonian resentment and megalomania that he can't always hide. He desultorily stalks the streets of Atlantic City, putting up cheap-looking signs and destroying his opponent's literature, talking to himself, reaffirming verbally that he's good and smart and deserving of office. You'll seldom see so complete a picture of loneliness, someone so in need of a hug. On election night, he drunkenly riffs on his own greatness. "Ytit Chauhan is not a man," he says expansively. "Ytit Chauhan is an idea. It's a theory. A concept of community, of love. It's something that we all yearn for. We don't know what it's called — some people call it 'karma' or 'nirvana.' It's actually called Ytit Chauhan!" He grins then, pleased that he's revealed so profound a truth.
Interview with Jason Pollock, director of The Youngest Candidate.