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Boys State

Studio: Apple / A24
Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine

Aug 12, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Jesse Moss’ and Amanda McBaine’s Sundance U.S. Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Boys State, centers on unfiltered access to Texas Boys State, an annual, week-long program where 1,000 seventeen-year-old boys are divided into two parties. They are tasked with building a representative government all the way up to the position of governor. Filmed in June 2018, the film focuses on four of the program’s participants: Steven Garza, a “Nationalist Party” gubernatorial candidate, René Otero, a “Nationalist Party” chair, Ben Feinstein, a “Federalist Party” chair, and Robert McDougall, a “Nationalist Party” gubernatorial candidate. The film uses these four subjects to showcase the Boys State program. The juxtaposition between the documentary’s focus and America as a whole is never directly spelled out, but is always implied.

The strongest part of Boys State is that there is simply nothing like it. Documentaries about politics are commonplace at the present time, but they are usually centered around either a certain person’s campaign and road to election or a political issue and controversy. Boys State is a little of both of those things and neither of them at the same time. By following four teenage candidates in a mock government, the film is technically a campaign documentary sprinkled with bits of controversy. But it’s also not those things, because none of what is happening has any dire consequence in the real world. The result of each subject’s actions only affect what happens in the Boys State program, and when the week is over, everyone returns back to their normal lives. Because of these low stakes and the short amount of time the program encompasses, Boys State is able to hone in on the cutthroat aspects of politics: the fighting, the manipulation, the constant lying to gain advantages, among many other things. Everything is amplified: the victories are huge, the losses are devastating, and the journey to see who becomes governor in the end is an entertaining roller coaster of events.

Another reason Boys State works so well is because McBaine and Moss operate without any bias, never trying to assert their influence at any time. The film’s subjects are so poetic and entertaining that it is easy to forget that the directing duo is even sitting behind the camera, just because of how natural everything feels. By letting the subjects speak for themselves, viewers are able to take away their own opinions from the documentary instead of being told what to take away, as is often the case in other politics-minded documentaries.

This is one of the rare cases where the documentary would work just as well, if not better, as a docu-series. In a 10-hour docu-series, Boys State could be a much more comprehensive look at a highly interesting program and experiment that is just as powerful, and perhaps more so, than the documentary already is. Still, in 109 minutes, the film is able to give insight to what politics in the United States of America really encapsulates, while also being an entertaining and bold look at power and competition. The film will leave you emotional, hopeful, scared, and wanting more insight into what else transpired during this tumultuous week. These kids represent what the future of this country is going to look like, good or bad, that’s just how it is.


Author rating: 8.5/10

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