“I think conservatism’s all about being a individual,” announces Nick at the start of Follow the Leader. One of three high school class presidents followed by the film, he’s eager to attend the annual Boys State Leadership Week, where he and his fellows will be learning all about “politics.” As the film begins, Nick, Ben (a liberal, at first), and D.J. (an independent, more or less) take this word to mean a career, dedicated to public service, fulfilling their own ambitions, and making changes in people’s lives. Over three years, Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s beguiling documentary reveals, all three undergo changes, some more drastic than others.
Screening 14 May at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Levitt, the documentary observes the boys, inviting them to describe their experiences and to lead the camera crew. This approach shows how the boys learn as much about themselves as about the arena they want to enter. Nick, for instance, is startled to hear from his friend Kathryn that her time at the leadership camp was less than inspiring. “It was a joke,” she says, “It had nothing to do with government. We were like learning cheers and we were like a laughing stock.” Nick wonders whether she thinks these activities reinforce stereotypes, then asks whether Kathryn imagines women might be able to be strong like men. Apart from what they plainly do well, that is, communicate or maybe have tea. “Having tea!” Kathryn repeats, her face horrified even as she laughs, as if she’s seeing just how hard her road ahead will be.
If Nick doesn’t see this, he and the other boys do come to their own revelations. The world of politics can be mean and unfair: as much as Nick believes his own speeches, that “America the land of equal opportunity,” if only you “put yourself out there,” he’s daunted, not least because his parents are so upset (they get on the phone to the other boy’s parents, threatening legal action). At the same time, D.J. spends time in 2008 campaigning for Deval Patrick, an experience that convinces him both of the need for politics and its inefficacy (he meets with Michael Dukakis, who tells him he’s the kind of person crucial to the political process), and Ben finds a mission in working for Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s State Attorney General recently renowned for his efforts to shut down abortion clinics. After he works up a negative campaign on his computer, Ben observes that manipulation is the point of politics; he gestures toward an image of Cuccinelli and says, “He’s basically everything I would like to become and I envy him for it.”
The manipulation begins to bother D.J., who turns away from his high school ambition to become president of the United States to another goal, as he becomes increasingly active in his church. In politics, he concludes, you don’t have time to be with your family or have a life apart from your campaigning. “The weight of the world is on your shoulders,” he says, smiling now. “You have to be sick in the head to want to be president.”