August 10, 2020

SCREEN | Grooming Statesmen – A 'Boys State' of Play on Apple TV+

"What is it that we're doing after we get elected?"
Steven Garza Robert MacDougall Amanda McBaine | Boys State | Apple TV+
A24 / Concordia Studio
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the married filmmaking duo behind The Overnighters, document the titular annual political boot camp for teenage boys sponsored by the American Legion at the Texas State Capitol in Austin over six drama-packed days. What Boys State reveals about the psychological inner workings of the U.S. democratic process is both gripping and deeply unsettling with strong allusions to Lord of the Flies.

These mostly well-meaning and very enterprising teens encapsulate the win at all costs nature of campaigning without the gravitas of any actual governance—much like their professional counterparts. Of the thousands of participants in the 2018 Texas Boys State, the sprawling documentary follows a handful of dynamic young Texans as we jump right into the fray of political discourse in a much more heightened and compressed environment.

Moss and McBaine take a cinéma vérité approach to how it follows these boys learning about partisanship first-hand. They are supposed to be learning about state governance and civil discourse, but things quickly become engulfed in the usual divisive tactics of more professional politicking.

Ben Feinstein Jesse Moss Amanda McBaine | Boys State | Apple TV+

The annual camp's aim is to ideally train future leadership candidates, but it ends up just reflecting a mini version of actual political infighting with Federalists and Nationalists instead of Democrats and Republicans. Although full of zeal and ambition, it's very easy to see how these boys can become corrupted or certainly less civil once they become worn out adults.

Boys State offers a fascinating perspective on how American society trains enthusiastic young men into political animals or so-called statesmen and how to compromise. Moss and McBaine capture the entire democratic process in a completely engaging but highly contentious mock election.

The documentary really tries to understand the democratic system by looking at its most nascent, low-stakes yet equally intense levels of participation. Its subjects manage to be realistic in their cynicism yet simultaneously idealistic in the film's hopeful earnestness.

Boys State is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting August 14th.

More | YVArcade / AV Club / Indiewire / Polygon

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