When we meet the three politically conservative — and politically ambitious — high school seniors who are the subject of “Follow the Leader,” the documentary looks, for all intents and purposes, like an examination of the care and feeding of Young Republicans. It quickly becomes an entirely different, and far more interesting, film.
As the movie begins, David (“D.J.”) Beauregard Jr. of Massachusetts, Nick Troiano of Pennsylvania and Ben Trump of Northern Virginia are mostly on the same page in life and politics. They’re the kind of smart, articulate, high-achieving conservatives-in-training who cite Ronald Reagan as their hero, read Ann Coulter’s “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)” for fun and dream of one day becoming president and leading the country back to a time that, for these kids anyway, must exist only in TV Land reruns.
Remember, they’re 16. How many of us grew up to become astronauts or ballerinas?
Shot by director Jonathan Goodman Levitt from 2006 through the 2008 presidential election, “Follow the Leader” follows D.J., Nick and Ben through high-school graduation, enrollment in college and internships with such campaigns as that of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II. Ben goes off to Carnegie Mellon; Nick comes to the District’s American University; and D.J. enters a small, unnamed school near his home in Methuen.
And then, as so often happens once children get to college, the subjects of the film start to change. Nick, who as a high school student won awards for his photography, starts to develop an interest in journalism, even as his political stance shifts from far right to what he calls “radical centrism.” D.J., who abandons his youthful conservatism early on to work for the campaign of Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), starts to drift away from politics entirely, toward Christian ministry. Over the course of the film, his positions swing back and forth the most. It’s not surprising, given his age.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is Fairfax County’s Ben, if only because he remains the most steadfast over the course of the filming. If anything, at the end of the movie he’s only more committed to his goal of becoming president and saving the country from moral decline than he was at the beginning. It’s a commitment that he attributes, paradoxically, to his father’s poor values, exemplified by his parents’ divorce, and what Ben calls his father’s “failure” as a person. The other two boys attribute their political awakening to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a portrait of baby politicos, “Follow the Leader” contains some fascinating insights. While still in high school, Nick suffers a classic example of mudslinging, when his campaign Web site for student body president is hacked and replaced by mocking material. Maybe all politics is just like high school, the film suggests.
Really, though, the movie is about so much more than politics. Growing up, growing disillusioned, gaining wisdom — these are the themes of Levitt’s slight but eminently watchable film. Its true subject isn’t the vicissitudes of politics, but of life. “I don’t actually have it all figured out,” Nick says. “And that’s okay.”
Unrated. At Angelika Film Center. Contains brief obscenity. 74 minutes.