Few films offer as much hope, and heartache, as “Boys State.”
The documentary tracks a decades-old program where high school teens learn about the American political system. It’s kids being kids with a very serious message lurking not so gently beneath the surface.
These are our future politicians. And for every bipartisan gesture and heartfelt speech, there’s an equal volley of spin to balance the ledger. And we all know what happens to those proportions when the real votes get counted.
The documentary drops us in on a program dating back to the 1930s. Each year, The American Legion separately gathers teen boys and girls for a crash course in Democracy, American style. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) give us a look at the Texas Boys State event in June 2018.
“Boys State” breaks down the mechanics behind the gathering as well as several key players. The program divides teens into two factions -- Federalists and Nationalists. The Left / Right dynamics of modern politics filters into that process, as do teens well versed in political warfare.
Think memes, social media attacks and more.
— Boys State (@BoysStateMovie) August 13, 2020
McBaine and Moss chose the film’s breakout stars wisely. Steven Garza, a humble Latino teen, sports a “Beto” T-shirt but is soft spoken and sincere. Rene Otero, an ideological soul mate, has a quicksilver tongue and the brains to back up his rhetoric.
Ben is a double amputee who worships President Ronald Reagan, but he’s no one’s idea of a victim. And then there’s Robert MacDougall, a slick pro-life student who could double as an ’80s film villain if only for one candid, and shocking, revelation.
FAST FACT: “Boys State” nabbed the grand jury prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival. Even more astounding? Apple and A24 paid $12 million for the rights to the film.
The boys endure a series of steps to nominate their group’s leaders, and “Boys State” mistakenly believes every moment is worth savoring. The film packs plenty of emotional fireworks as well as clever reveals, but they’re often buried by glorified B-roll footage.
A shrewd editor could snip 15 minutes from the documentary and make it a stronger, more vital piece of work.
It’s refreshing to see how innocent, and eager to reach across the aisle, the teens are through much of the program. Yes, there are hard-liners on both sides, but they clearly want to avoid the bickering seen on the nightly news.
Until the votes begins.
Tempers flare. The mood gets uglier and the right-leaning students tap their inner Karl Rove. Through it all is Steven, whose “reach across the aisle” shtick is the real deal. You can’t help but admire the lad, and the filmmakers clearly cast him as the story’s moral center.
How much of that was planning and casting? It’s impossible to know.
The film still leans left as we near the conclusion, something unavoidable in our modern age. The directors are no fan of President Donald Trump, even if his is barely mentioned. That doesn’t diminish the lessons learned throughout “Boys State,” or the earnestness of the task in hand.
The one element missing from the annual program is an increasingly large factor in modern politics.
Our corrupt media.
Without it, the program, and the film, can’t fully capture the current political system. That’s no fault of the filmmakers, but an observation that must be said in 2020.
Boys State alums include President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney, radio titan Rush Limbaugh and Sen. Cory Booker. There’s a chance the featured players in “Boys State” may become nationally known before too long.
If so, we’ll be able to look back at their younger selves and see how much the system changed them … likely for the worse.
HiT or Miss: “Boys State” desperately needs an edit, but the documentary’s look at teens let loose in our political world is still worth your time.