Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s documentary Follow the Leader introduces us to three sixteen year old boys, all leaning conservative politically, in 2006. D.J., from Massachusetts, is something of a political fanboy, collecting autographs of politicians the way one would collect the autographs of a professional athlete. Nick, from Pennsylvania, is the DeLorean-driving idealist with an affinity for Ronald Reagan. Ben is the nice suit-wearing Republican who wants his Mom to paint the walls of his room with Napoleon and Alexander the Great. All three boys share similar political ideas, and all three have aspirations to be president of the United States.
Except, that was 2006. As the film moves along through Obama’s inauguration in 2009, we see the boys and their political ideas and aspirations evolve. It’s fascinating to watch as the three come to terms with their changing ideologies, or their acceptance of some things and dismissal of others. Fascinating, but not altogether unique; how many thoughts and ideas that you had when you were sixteen are either still held, or even relevant, today? I’m sure some survive, but no doubt many things that felt like personal absolutes have long since been altered or discarded.
Which is the universal aspect of youth that ultimately becomes coupled with a significant point in history, as the United States, reeling and recovering from the post-9/11 years and coping with the Iraq War, begins to fall into an economic crisis just as it elects its first African American president. The natural evolution of ideals that comes with maturity that these three boys would’ve undergone is suddenly put in a more unique spot, as children who grew up in an America that they’ve always known as a superpower begin to see that the country’s status is not as clean-cut worldwide as they’ve been raised to believe. There is work to be done, and the three have to decide what that means for them personally.
And that’s an aspect I enjoyed about the film, as it’s not just a bunch of scenes of the kids explaining their political views all the time. Instead, the film establishes their views in general, and then allows their own growth over the next few years show how, as they change, so too does their loyalties or ideologies. In some ways, it is heartening to see because there is a feeling that maybe, among these three, there is a leader who, years down the road, will deliver something truly different. At the same time, there’s the feeling that it’ll all shake out as political business as usual, and the one who might make the biggest difference is also going to be the one who gets the most disillusioned along the way.
Overall, Follow the Leader is an intriguing glimpse into the lives of three young Americans as they grapple with who they are, not only politically, but as people. You might see yourself reflected in someone here, you might be inspired and, likewise, you might be disappointed. If this is the future of politics and politicians in the United States, it’s worth a look, if for no other reason than for people to realize it’s not about waiting for another generation to come along and fix things anymore than it was about letting the current crop in power handle everything.