Filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt doesn't see his film, "Follow the Leader" as a straightforward political documentary in the vein of 2007's "Please Vote for Me," which depicted the election of a third-grade class monitor in a Chinese primary school, or any others about precocious and politically ambitious young people.
Rather, Levitt's film is a coming-of-age story about three 16-year-old boys and the varied paths their lives -- and ideologies -- take over the course of several years.
"What I wanted to make was a film about what it meant to be an American to the millennials ... who grew up in the wake of Sept. 11," Levitt said. "What we see in the film is that though these three kids start off in the same place, they really mature over the course of the film and learn what they really believe and it leads them in three separate directions."
Levitt will be in attendance April 18 for a Q&A following a screening of the film, which was released last year and has been shown across the country, as well as at Republican and Democratic national conventions.
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Levitt said he was inspired to make the film while living in London for about six years where he saw how American politics were perceived internationally.
He wanted to get an insider's look at how those events shaped the nation's politically engaged young people, but he wasn't totally sure how to find them.
"I figured the best place to look was through the same school clubs and programs that I had been involved in as a young person ... like the American Legion's Boys State program," Levitt said. "I met thousands of kids ... but ultimately found three young people who represented a broad, cross-section of American leadership and were the type of kids who all aspired to be national leaders."
The film's stars -- D.J. Beauregard, Ben Trump and Nick Troiano -- are about what you'd expect. They were all presidents of their high school classes, talented and eloquent debaters and were all running or volunteering for local political campaigns before they were even eligible to vote.
Throughout the early part of the film, all three teens make earnest statements dripping with idealism but do so without even a hint of irony.
"Politics is the ultimate game," a stone-faced Trump said during one interview. "A single decision can determine whether you're a loser for the rest of your life. If you don't get ready at 15 or 16 years old, you're going to be insignificant."
Over the course of the film, the political views of D.J., Ben and Nick are tested and often evolve as they come to better understand the American political landscape and themselves.
Perhaps none more than D.J., a Massachusetts teen, who begins the film as a staunch conservative only to switch parties and begin working to help elect Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass.
The party switch leads to more than a few on-camera debates with his right-leaning father about the Iraq War, President George W. Bush and other topics.
"Those scenes with D.J. and his dad are ones that I've always found quite powerful," Levitt said. "In some ways, they encapsulate what the film is really about."
Meaghan Walsh Gerard, the theatre's managing director, said they wanted to screen the documentary in the hopes that other filmmakers will be inspired by the film, which was made for a modest $100,000 to $200,000. That sum included more than $25,000 raised through the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter.
"While amusing and entertaining, I think (the film) shows that leaders can -- and do -- come from anywhere," Walsh Gerard said. "Aside from the film's content, we hope aspiring filmmakers will get to see a piece that was created by someone not unlike themselves and be able to gain from that perspective."
Despite the often polarized landscape of American politics, Levitt said he hopes audiences will keep an open mind about his film.
"Often in our political system, people make it difficult to even start a conversation about the news and things happening in our country," Levitt said. "We spend a lot of time talking about issues, but there seems to be very little listening."
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick
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