Movie Reviews

Published on August 10th, 2020 | by minshewnetworks

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Boys State

Review by Ryan Lambert

In his farewell letter, written and published in the nation’s newspapers before he retired from public service—and with a wise eye turned toward the thick-headed, ideological skirmishes that would consume rational discourse several centuries later—George Washington warned against the creation of political parties, fearing that their negative influence could weaken government and lead to absolute power being sought by the individual. With a quote from the First President as an opening epigraph, this idea animates the social experiment documentary “Boys State” from co-directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, and clues the viewer in to the attitude the filmmakers take towards the events onscreen: somewhere between critical and cynical, with a small dash of hope for a more perfect union budding within the beating hearts and cracking voices of America’s youth. 

“Boys State” chronicles a week at the titular program in Texas—a chaperoned version of “Lord of the Flies” that includes famous alumni like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and (weirdly enough) Roger Ebert—where over a thousand high-school boys are randomly assigned to two competing political organizations and required to nominate leadership, agree on policy to form a coherent platform, and participate in elections. Title cards introduce the major players: Ben, a disabled lad who believes that inequality is a result of individual failings rather than systemic factors; Steven, a child of immigrants with prior experience canvassing and calling for his local Democratic candidates; Robert, a handsome good ol’ boy with his eyes on West Point; and René, a young Black man with the gift for public speaking and the curse of living in such a conservative town. The remainder of the attendees run the gamut between informed future voters (a minority) and those who crowdsource their opinions from others, all of the action being captured fluidly in shallow-focus tracking shots through a fly-on-the-wall, vérité style.

“Boys State” is an entertaining exposé, achieving its mission of shedding light on a subculture as strange as this one, but the further you go into this reality the more hopeless the future seems. So much of the voting game, both within this microcosm and in the nation at large, has nothing to do with logic or reason, as intellectual belief takes a backseat to big personalities and a strong sense of charisma. This is an obvious truth (simply watch any political ad from the last several election cycles), but seeing it reinforced so directly in the next generation of leaders could make anyone jaded. The boys who participate in the program walk away with “a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office,” flipping their personal views in order to garner votes—the peer pressure here has even the most Left candidate yelling about God and bootstraps and patriotism. Spin and the strategic framing of issues compete with ad hominem vitriol as the currency of this world; smear campaigns triumph over honest discussion, weakness is something to be exploited, and as one future venom-infused speechwriter for the Ministry of Truth puts it: “you have to use personal attacks” to distinguish your side from theirs.

As a gang of hormonal kids with close to zero life experience away from their mommy’s bosom scream and shout about gun rights and immigration and how abortion kills babies—uneducated yet fired up about reproductive rights that lie well outside their jurisdiction of concern—I’m left wondering how much the Girls State resembles this demagogue training program of a summer camp. Thankfully there’s some welcome comic relief in the form of passive aggressive comments muttered under breaths, a talent show, and an early series of silly bill proposals: shipping Prius drivers to a different state, changing the pronunciation of the letter “W,” and building an infrastructure to defend against alien invasion. Taxes are boring, secession is fun.

Although its vast sea of enjoyable scenes and thought-provoking commentary provide for a stellar viewing experience, “Boys State” falls prey to the same problem that plagues our country as a whole: overwhelming focus on who holds the governorship, the highest office in the program, when so much strategic influence is wielded by smaller, less flashy positions. Or perhaps the failing is on the participants themselves, and that’s one of the many points the filmmakers are striving towards. Either way, this whacky tradition of youthful self-governance is compelling, and I wanted more after the credits had rolled.

4 stars out of 5

Ryan Lambert writes a weekly film newsletter at flickpicking.org. Other interests include 8-ball and clowns.

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