Written by: Hannah Tran | August 26th, 2022
The Youth Governor (Jaron Halmy/Matthew Halmy, 2022) 2 out of 4 stars.
It’s almost impossible to feel powerful when so much energy and stamina is channeled into a political sphere that often feels immune to change. The same rotation of seemingly insurmountable problems can just as easily inspire as they can numb. Jaron and Matthew Halmy, a brother filmmaking duo from California making their feature debut, understand this type of dread, but they prefer to look at the positive effects that can emerge from it, instead.
In their documentary, The Youth Governor, the Halmys go inside the world of a California-based YMCA program that annually hosts thousands of high-school students for a semi-simulation of the political process, which features activities all teens are surely dying to be part of, such as lobbying, drafting legislation, and elections. Focusing on the campaign for the most coveted seat as youth governor, the directors respectably capture a number of exceptionally bright and energetic students, but their creative decisions beyond this tend to be lackluster. Despite the intrigue of the subject and the sweet spin on it, the gravity of the real-life issues nearly disappears in the simple optimism present here.
It isn’t that politics should be complicated. It’s just that this documentary actively and passively avoids conflict. The amount of time spent with inspirational quotes and vague declarations of hope takes away from the more substantive relationships and rules of the program’s electoral process. The fact that it takes place in a state with little ideological division allows the filmmakers to be virtually apolitical in their approach. There is also a lack of curiosity regarding several narrative threads, such as an antisemitic smear campaign or an inside plot to identify extremists within one of the parties. This extends to the coverage of its main subjects, as certain students receive suspiciously large chunks of screen time that don’t pay off by the end.
And while I hate to compare films, The Youth Governor’s most glaring detraction is its obvious similarities to Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s far superior 2020 documentary Boys State. Although it similarly mingles with the role of youth, social media, and bullying in politics, it maintains an arm’s length detachment from them. Most of all, it lacks the charisma of the Boys State subjects, who were not only meant to be admired but also empathized with. And sans the visible divisions that naturally arise during a conference of Texan teenage boys trying to make their voices heard, The Youth Governor has nearly intangible stakes, which leaves its uplifting optimism feeling pretty inconsequential.