How can it cost $100,000 to get to some 30,000 votes — in the poorest district of a town so broke its city hall got foreclosed on? That’s one of the many dispiriting questions posed and answered by True Son, a political-campaign doc that manages to be buoyant even as its setting — Stockton, California — sinks around it.
Acting on dorm-room inspiration, cheery local 22-year-old Michael Tubbs heads home to Stockton after finishing his studies at Stanford and declares his intent to run for city council in the sixth district. His candidacy is at first an uphill battle, thanks to his inexperience, his lack of a campaign staff, and Stockton’s systemic disenfranchisement of poor and minority voters: Council seats in all districts are voted on by the entire city, meaning Tubbs must win over his neighborhood and the north’s gated communities.
Tubbs goes door to door, laying out the sad facts about the record-breaking crime rate, 30 percent unemployment, the do-nothing disinterest of the sitting councilman. The fact that we’re watching a relatively well-made movie about Tubbs robs his crusade of some of its suspense, and sure enough, he eventually wins enough national attention to get some local momentum.
Oprah herself donates 10 grand, and MC Hammer pitches in. For all that, the most exciting scenes show smart, charismatic Tubbs cleaning his opponent’s clock in a televised debate. Tubbs and his campaign manager clash some over the best use of their time and Tubbs’s reluctance to ask strangers for money, but we only see this conflict in talking-head interviews — with sharper on-the-ground footage, True Son might have been as sharp a doc as it is inspiring a story.