Against a windswept flat of Panhandle nothing, a skinny young man in an ill-fitting Goodwill suit fidgets with his loud floral necktie. His hair is closely cropped, flattened into a severe part that reads as almost sardonically “normal.” He stares pensively down at the water rushing through a drainage ditch, lost in mock contemplation, before the camera begins a series of surreal smash cuts. First he tosses a metal folding chair over the thin band of water. In another shot, the young man lies facedown on a sidewalk, straining to stretch a tape measure across the cracks in the pavement. The camera captures him again in close-up as he squints into the sun and nervously licks his lips. Finally, we cut abruptly to him standing in a pockmarked field, cars indifferently rumbling by in the background. He props one foot up on the folding chair with a theatrical clunk, tape measure dangling haphazardly across one knee.

“My name is Hayden Pedigo,” the young man says. “I’m running for City Council Place Two in Amarillo, Texas. I believe that a lot of local small-business owners out here are straight-up getting bonked.” He lets this final line linger just a beat too long as his face curls upward into a knowing smirk, briefly dropping his earnest facade. 

This minute of footage is how Hayden Pedigo’s political life began, so naturally it’s how Kid Candidate begins as well. Jasmine Stodel’s documentary, produced by Gunpowder & Sky and premiering as part of this week’s virtual South by Southwest, follows the then-24-year-old musician’s 2019 bid to break into Amarillo’s local government, picking up the thread as his subversive prank accidentally spawns a political movement. As Pedigo explains, the ad was just a goof he filmed with some friends, a lark inspired, he says, by the early camcorder provocations of director Harmony Korine. It’s intentionally amateurish and bizarre, with VHS grain and ham-handed echo effects straight out of the surreal sketch comedy series Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Pedigo himself radiates a stiff, self-aware awkwardness that’s pure Nathan for You. It’s no surprise that Adult Swim glommed onto the clip, blasting it into the stoned-at-2 a.m. basic cable netherworld where it was seemingly always intended to live. After that, Pedigo filmed four more ads—in one, he wears a cowboy hat and tosses a brick through a mirror; another finds him silently browsing through purses and tractors at the mall—proudly made for “zero dollars” in contributions. They went viral, eventually ending up on the front page of Reddit.

But as Stodel’s film chronicles, a funny thing happened on the way to the forums. As the first video took off, Pedigo started to wonder what would happen if he actually ran for city council. When he did, he became a serious contender, embraced not just by Amarillo’s restless community of street artists and aspiring rappers he counts as friends, but also by entire swaths of the city’s Black and Latino citizens who felt similarly ignored by Amarillo’s moneyed elite. While the ad may have been a joke, it also got Pedigo an audience. And he realized that this presented an opportunity—the first real shot for so many people at being seen. No matter how it began, his campaign presented a viable challenge to a city council tightly controlled by the local PAC Amarillo Matters, which spends thousands each election year on preserving a slate of wealthy incumbents who can be relied upon to always put downtown’s business interests first. Like spending $2 million renovating the scoreboard in the city’s minor-league ballpark while a community pool sat closed.

Kid Candidate doesn’t shy away from how sad it is that for Amarillo’s population of impoverished South Sudanese refugees, to name just one such marginalized group, the best hope for the future lies with a young, white kid who mostly got into politics as a form of performance art. Even Pedigo’s own mentor and advisor, Innocence Project of Texas cofounder and local attorney Jeff Blackburn, is unsparing in his assessment of Pedigo as an “unwitting dupe” who has “no business” being in government. Blackburn openly derides him to Stodel’s cameras as a gimmick candidate who may as well be a literal baby. Of course, that doesn’t stop Blackburn from being firmly in Pedigo’s corner. Like everyone else who rallies behind Pedigo, Blackburn recognizes the rare opportunity for Amarillo to change the conversation around local politics, and to introduce a slightly more progressive voice to the city, regardless of where it came from. 

Becoming a figurehead for Amarillo’s disenfranchised gives Pedigo’s campaign a purpose, but it also creates enormous pressure that begins to creep beneath his placid, cheery calm. As he meets with more and more pockets of languishing constituents, just desperate for someone to listen to them, Pedigo starts to realize exactly how many communities he’d be letting down if he lost. The film’s tone switches very quickly from shtick to urgent sincerity, and Pedigo impresses even seasoned, more ostensibly “serious” candidates with his passion. 

At the same time, Pedigo’s campaign grows into something that’s largely symbolic. Like Houston’s seventeen-year-old city council challenger Marcel McClinton, or even the youngish Beto O’Rourke, Pedigo becomes a stand-in for a new generation that’s been increasingly stress-testing Texas’s gates that protect the elite, rigidly conservative way of things. With its neglected Black neighborhoods scattered outside a gleaming city center, Amarillo suggests a microcosm of Texas politics, one shaped and dictated by inequitable laws lingering since the antebellum days. In particular, the city’s antiquated use of at-large voting—in which all council members are elected citywide, rather than by district—ensures that thousands of residents go without any real representation. Just by making voting by district the bedrock of his platform, Pedigo promises a tectonic shift to the status quo. 

Because of Pedigo’s aversion to outlining policy—or maybe because of the fact that his campaign began on Adult Swim—there is the pervasive question throughout Kid Candidate of whether he really means it. Neither Blackburn nor Pedigo’s opponents seem to take the young man all that seriously, and the idea persists that maybe this is just a joke that’s gone too far to back out now. At one point, Pedigo’s wife, L’Hannah Pedigo, suggests there may even be some element of personal spite to his run, aimed at goading his strict Baptist parents. Days before the election, Pedigo learns Amarillo Matters’s website is warning voters that his campaign is likely just a work of satire, intended to mock and undermine the entire democratic process.

“It’s not a joke,” Pedigo insists, and it’s clear that he’s sincere—if only recently so. Pedigo may have gotten into the race on the back of some viral internet spoof, but he also has a genuine love for his city. He wants to use his accidental platform to help others find theirs. Still, at times even Pedigo seems to question why exactly he’s doing this. We watch as his social media following fails to translate to actual turnouts, and as he struggles through late-night stump speeches and a miserable day of door-to-door canvassing. We wonder along with him whether he really wants to win this thing, even as Amarillo’s other young creatives and even jaded political types draw inspiration from his refusal to quit. 

There is a common question about Hayden Pedigo, one originally posed by Texas Monthly’s Michael Hall in his 2015 profile (and raised again in an appearance from Hall in the film)—namely, what’s this guy still doing in the Panhandle? Prior to politics, Pedigo was best known for making experimental guitar music, a beautiful gnarl of ambient drone and finger-picked desert blues that’s inspired equally by John Fahey and This Heat, and championed by the likes of NPR and the Fader. Pedigo’s critical acclaim and idiosyncratic sound have provoked some, like Hall, to ask why Pedigo doesn’t just escape to New York or Portland or Austin, someplace more likely to “get” him.

Instead, he recently relocated from Amarillo to Lubbock. Pedigo has cited the Panhandle’s relatively cheap cost of living, its sense of rambling freedom, and even the example of Amarillo’s late, disgraced, eccentric millionaire Stanley Marsh, who similarly treated the city as a blank canvas for his own artistic provocations. But Kid Candidate reframes the question, showing us how many members of Amarillo’s artistic class end up barely scraping by on the fringes, if they don’t just up and leave. Unsurprisingly, this issue is where Pedigo finds much of his passion. He wants to convince Amarillo’s young people to stay, and to transform it into the kind of city that values their future—one where it’s worth sticking around.

It’s no spoiler to say that Pedigo ultimately loses. He finishes a distant second to the incumbent Elaine Hays, and as of now, his political career seems to be on indefinite hiatus while he focuses on music (his latest album, Big Tex, Here We Come, dropped in early March) and clowns around on Instagram. Yet Stodel’s film argues that the mere existence of Pedigo’s campaign counts as a victory anyway. Just by running—and by doing it for the camera—he’s exposed Amarillo’s hidden-in-plain-sight corporatocracy. He’s rallied the vastly disparate groups among Amarillo’s underserved, mobilized scores of first-time voters, and shown meddling kids and other defiant types that they can sneak their way into spaces thought impenetrable. He has also, in Pedigo’s words, probably succeeded in “making old, rich people angry.” But first—and most importantly—he got their attention.