Founded in 1936 by Clement A. Duran, the YMCA-sponsored “Youth and Government” [YaG] is a national program that takes place annually in 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia (West Virginia has a similar event with the same model not officially affiliated with the YMCA).
YaG encourages high school seniors to participate in exercises designed to elevate their understanding of the inner-workings of state government.
To label what takes place at these gatherings as “mock” or “fake” would not be entirely inaccurate as those elected to “office” don’t actually hold any kind office or have any legal power as such, but it is highly effective in showing teenagers learning the do’s and don’ts when running for office.
While this education model is impressive in its own way, it’s also far from complete and, perhaps in the eyes of some, encourages preening vanity and self-absorption.
Written and directed by brothers Jaron and Matthew Halmy, the film’s first five minutes is promising and provides a bullet-point overview of what YaG is all about. Like the actual U.S. government, it is divided into three distinct branches: the legislative, the judicial, and the executive.
Students are charged to do the same things their adult counterparts do (in theory, at least) in their own state governments. Bills are introduced and debated in the House and Senate, arguments and trials are presented before judges, with the governor having the final say on what is passed into law. To call it a live-action version of a high school civics class wouldn’t be inaccurate.
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It is particularly disheartening that only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics, while 30 states require a half year and the other 11 states offer no civics courses in their curriculums.
As it turns out, the fleeting glimpses we see of the YaG legislative and judicial branches during the opening salvo is all that is presented in the entire film; these two bodies are tossed to the wayside like ugly stepsisters.
The gathering in the film includes 4,000 California high school students and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that most of them identify as Democrats. The teens are divided up into six parties with only one (the “Trout” party) top heavy with Republicans.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they spend a fair amount of time in the company of Ethan Clark, the “Trout” spokesman and principal strategist who emerges as the movie’s most grounded and least affected participant.
After the preamble, things get underway with opening remarks from outgoing governor, Scott Nagatoshi, who announces the six primary candidates (culled from a pool of 40). A virtual gender/diversity buffet, it includes two white males, two white females (one of them Jewish), a black male, and an Asian male who favors salmon-colored suits.
Random Party Assignments
The primary takes place in January in Fresno where the six candidates start pressing the flesh, slapping backs, and bending the ears of anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. What’s most strange about the process is the arbitrary assigning of the candidates to the six parties. As all of the candidates lean left, this won’t be an issue for five of them but proves to be quite the challenge for Piper Samuels who becomes the “Trout” candidate.
The only person featured in the film who is charged with embracing views she disagrees with, Samuels has no choice but to alter her platform if she has any chance of making the next cut.
The son of African immigrants, Bayo Collins has no trouble making it to the semi-finals, but a divisive, possibly sexist video that he posted on social media comes back to haunt him after the gathering moves to the State House in Sacramento. He learns a hard lesson in “back-walking” and “re-examining my position” political pivots.
Of the three finalists, former child actor Aidan Blain is easily the most charismatic and recovers well after his gaffe, an answer to the question, “what’s your favorite breakfast food?” Instead of replying with an actual food like the others, Blain’s answer, “breakfast buffet,” results in unintended laughter and mild taunting. It is telling that he’s concerned that he might lose possible voters who prefer “cereal” or “fruit.” His non-answer to a simple, innocuous question is reflective of professional politicians who trade in empty double-speak and word salads.
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In the last half hour, Gov. Gavin Newsom gets a rock star welcome and speaks to the throng for two or so minutes without actually saying anything substantial.
An unforeseen event involving the anonymous postings of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi memes is brought into the narrative and receives less than 30 seconds of screen attention. It is hugely wasted “teachable moment.”
The last 15 minutes is easily the most engaging of the entire production when the delegates, in caucus form, cast their votes for the final two candidates. The back-and-fourth lead changes are hyper-engaging and provide the movie with a nail-biting, rollercoaster ending, barely pushing the film into barely recommendable territory.
If you’re looking for a far better movie containing virtually the same type of content, check out “Boy’s State” from 2020. It’s set in Texas and features a teen government model that is far closer in execution to that found in the real world.
‘The Youth Governor’
Directors: Jaron Halmy, Matthew Halmy
Running Time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release Date: Aug. 30, 2022
Rating: 2.5 out of 5