Sign Up For Apple TV+ Just To Watch A24’s ‘Boys State’

by Jonah Desneux on August 13, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Rock Fist Way Up]

Opening digitally on Apple TV+ August 14.

Throughout its runtime, the new documentary Boys State fills you with hope, kicks you in the crotch, reassures you that everything is going to be okay, kicks you in the crotch again, and then most importantly has you reflecting American democracy in a simultaneously unsettling yet inspiring way.

Boys State never claims to have the answers to all of America’s woes, but it examines the triumphs and the Trump’s of the election process in a mesmerizing fashion. Not only capturing the political attitudes of today, the film also shines a light on what our future holds. At the end of the film, I was in tears. I’m still not sure if they were tears of inspiration or concern. As the optimistic, I’m going to go with being more moved than worried, but as a young man so expertly claims in the film “that’s politics, I think.”

Taking place at the 2018 Texas Boys State, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture the event of 1,000 17-year-old males coming together from all over the state to participate in a mock government. The young men split into two groups, the Federalist and the Nationislt, and must work together and against each other to pass legislation and have their party come out on top of the election of Boys State Governor. The film personally follows the candidates of each party through their primaries and the general election. The young look to find compromises while also staying true to their own values. They experience the vicious cycle of being involved in politics, while the viewer gets their own lesson on why things never seem to get done.

Documentaries were revolutionized in the early ’60s in large part due to Robert Drew‘s close-up films on John F. Kennedy. Through Primary (1960) and Crisis (1963), audiences saw a fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking that simply viewed politicians going about their work without any involvement from the filmmakers. The style came to become the groundbreaking direct cinema model of documentary filmmaking, and presents the idea that a documentary’s subject is at their most genuine when the camera simply captures the action without forcing it in any way. In using this style to capture the “truth” in politics, audiences are allowed to have a less fabricated look into how the system that governs them works. McBaine and Moss not only capture this influential essence in Boys State but improve upon the style by establishing a more personal connection with the film’s subjects and allowing audiences to see themselves through the combative teenage boys and the political system we all partake in.

Boys State is masterful in capturing the emotional stakes for the young men in the film and effortlessly have the audience relate and stress over the same thing. Quickly into the film, it becomes less about Boys State itself and more about the grander picture of the state of American politics and what our future has in store. One can’t help but get absorbed into the ups and downs of the teenagers who are essentially participating in congressional cosplay. Depending on how you fall on the political spectrum, there will be boys you cheer on and cherish and then there will be some that will have you sweating knowing that they are voting this November 3. This combination and the rivalry between the two sides perfectly encapsulate political tribalism and puts the mirror to the audience, leaving us guilty and part of the problem.

What makes Boys State so exceptional compared to other political docs is how effective McBaine and Moss are at giving both sides a voice. Never pandering to the middle with a “there’s good in both sides” view, the documentary never outright takes a stand in giving one side more of a platform over the other. Instead, the film focuses more on the mindset of the mock politicians and has them explain why they are doing what they are doing, rather than preach about what they think is right. Many times, an individual will admit that they went against their heart for the sake of what they thought would give them the best chance to win. The film does not give the audience’s answers, but instead admirably lays out evidence and insight and lets the audience choose what they think is best without blind loyalty to whoever shouts the loudest.

McBaine and Moss also excel at giving thorough perspectives on the film’s central subjects. The young men are fascinating subjects in the film’s own narrative, but also to the political figures and sides they come to represent. There is Steven Garza, son of immigrants, who got active in politics after being inspired by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 campaign. Steven continuously carries an optimistic attitude of being active in public service for the betterment of those around him. Rene Otero is Steven’s right-hand man and proclaimed progressive from Chicago, who despite his differing beliefs than most of his party, wins an early election through his knowledge and charm. Rene powerfully exclaims early in the film that “At first, I thought this was a conservative indoctrination camp. No, this is exactly what every liberal needs.” Steven and Rene bond together to find a meaningful compromise within their party whose primary concerns are gun rights and abortion, while also facing an opponent who openly admits he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, he is just telling the room full of rowdy Texas boys what they want to hear.

Boys State works so well because of how compelling Steven and Rene are and how easy it is to get invested in their cause and ultimate goal. That power in their storytelling is rooted in the audience themselves believing in Steven and Rene’s cause and ultimate goal, if not then the film hits strides in letting Ben Feinstein explain his conservative beliefs. Feinstein is a double amputee, with great admiration for Ben Shapiro, he has proudly overcome the challenges in his life and has the mindset that everyone else can do the same if they try. Maybe inspiring to some, Ben embodies the new age conservative politics that is seen more and more on social media. While not easy to agree with in many cases, McBaine and Moss excel at exploring why Ben believes the things he does.

Right now is the perfect time for Boys State, as so much hangs on the line for so many people with the 2020 election. Boys State tackles the divisiveness of modern politics head-on, without giving a moral lesson of “both sides this and both sides that.” The film is instead incredible behind-the-scenes study of why those in power do the things that they do and why we get so riled up about it. Boys State is fascinating, frightening, and a must-watch for this year. It will be available to be seen with a wide release on Apple TV +. If you don’t have that service, I strongly advise you to start a free trial to watch Boys State, one of the best and most important films of the year.

Jonah Desneux

Jonah Desneux is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri with a BA in Film Studies. It’s baffling that someone who just spent four years writing film paper after film paper would immediately want to write some more, but hey, he must love it! Along with writing about film Jonah enjoys writing and performing sketch comedy in Columbia and Kansas City.

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