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SXSW 2021: Kid Candidate, Executive Order, Potato Dreams of America

Day one of the online South by Southwest Film Festival featured three stories about community, politics and cultural identity. The characters in these movies are either trying to figure out who they are, finding the strength to enact change in a place they love, or fighting for their right to simply exist.

The strongest of these is Jasmine Stodel’s hour-long documentary “Kid Candidate,” about 24-year-old musician Hayden Pedigo’s candidacy for city council in Amarillo, Texas. Based solely on his internet-famous campaign videos, Pedigo would seem an unlikely choice for public office. But Stodel demonstrates that Pedigo’s candidacy is not only legitimate, it also presents an inroad to exploring corrupt city politics in his hometown, and by extension, many cities across the country just like it.

Pedigo’s campaign starts as a goof, making a surreal camcorder campaign ad with a friend. When the video takes off, he realizes he cares enough about his city to potentially make a real difference, and launches an earnest bid. Pedigo’s candidacy puts him on a collision course with a PAC dedicated to keeping Amarillo’s wealthy, all-white incumbent city leaders in power. Stodel shows Pedigo’s interactions with low-income members of Amarillo’s citizenry, and simultaneously explores the ways the city’s leadership have consciously developed wealthy areas of town while draining resources from those who need them most.

“Kid Candidate” is both an endearing character study of Pedigo and a well-informed examination of municipal politics. Pedigo’s lo-fi David Lynch-meets-Harmony Korine campaign ads are creative and funny. His relationships with his friends and his supportive wife L’Hannah paint a picture of him as a smart, kind-hearted person who wants to do right by the town he loves. Stodel’s interviews with Amarillo’s marginalized residents also show us what’s at stake, and how a city’s policies impact underprivileged people. Amarillo’s problems with crime, poverty and segregation are not unique. "Kid Candidate" presents a compelling case for educating ourselves on those issues, and taking a stand by getting involved in local politics.

The Brazilian satirical political drama “Executive Order” has definite strengths (a surprise leading turn from Harry Potter alum Alfred Enoch among them), but suffers from tonal whiplash. In its early scenes, Lázaro Ramos’ directorial debut plays like a South American “Sorry to Bother You,” but it quickly takes on dramatic heft that clashes with its setup.

Set in the near future, “Executive Order” speculates on the state of Brazilian race relations. The government is making slavery reparations to its Black populace, now termed “high melanin.” Enoch’s Antonio, a lawyer, takes the government to task for reneging on its promise after a recipient is denied her check in front of the press. The government responds by implementing a voluntary program by which “melanized” citizens can return to Africa, later followed by a mandate to deport anyone who looks “even a little bit black.” Antonio and his journalist cousin Andre (Seu Jorge) resist by hiding out in their apartment, broadcasting protest missives from their balcony.

Elements throughout “Executive Order” hint at a fascinating commentary. The voluntary “Return Yourself Now” program feels absurd and slyly evil in the same way “Sorry To Bother You’s” WorryFree accurately skewered the glorified indentured servitude culture of WeWork and Amazon. Antonio’s wife Capitu (Taís Araújo) finds refuge in an underground “Afro-Bunker,” where Afro-Brazilians hide out amongst colorful artifacts from the community’s now banned Carnival celebration. 

These moments get smothered, however, by a prestige drama pathos that takes over from the second act onward. It’s hard to tell what kind of movie “Executive Order” wants to be. While its satirical elements and speculative details are its most interesting features, its focus instead lies in a plot that doesn’t need that framework to get across the points it’s trying to impart. Ramos’ film has strong potential, but lacks a consistent vision.

“Potato Dreams of America,premiering in the festival as part of its narrative feature competition, is an autobiographical dark comedy about writer/director Wes Hurley’s experience growing up in Vladivostok in the '80s and '90s, and then emigrating with his mail-order bride mother to Seattle in hopes of a better life. It's a fascinating story, and the film boasts a lot of ambition, but the production level doesn’t always feel ready to meet it.

The first third of the film, set in Russia, has a heightened staginess recalling Matthew Rankin’s “The Twentieth Century,” and it’s a smart way to make use of limited resources. Hurley shoots these scenes on sets resembling a community theater production, with sharply contrasted lighting that leans into that stagey feeling. Young Vasily (Hersh Powers), nicknamed Potato, and his mother Lena (Sera Barbieri) struggle to get by in Soviet Russia. A prison doctor, Lena feels threatened and undermined at work. Meanwhile, Potato discovers religion and adopts Jesus (Jonathan Bennett) as an imaginary friend.

The movie’s style shifts when Lena (now played by Marya Sea Kaminski) marries John (Dan Lauria), and she and Potato move to Seattle. There, Potato (now played by Tyler Bocock) struggles with his sexual identity, eventually coming out as gay. Hurley moves from a soundstage to real interiors and exteriors, and softer lighting. The tone of the film also changes from satirical to heartfelt. Since Vasily and his mom are so taken with American entertainment, this may be meant to mimic the look of the era’s sitcoms while upending their conventions. Casting the dad from "The Wonder Years" as the repressed stepfather lends itself to that reading. 

It’s unclear as “Potato Dreams of America” goes on, however, how much of this style is intentional and how much of it is that way by necessity. This is accompanied by some big swings that feel rushed, asking for sudden empathy for a character who’s done little to earn it. The story behind the film is engaging and worthy, but in overall execution, it feels uneven.

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