Teenage political junkies at a leadership conference doesn't seem like the most riveting subject matter for a documentary. As a product of teenage leadership conferences, I assumed that at best, maybe, it could be fodder for a black comedy. But the new documentary "Boys State" convinced me otherwise.
Perhaps it's the strange and heightened political times we're living in or just pure luck on the part of directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine in finding a riveting case study to film. But either way, they scored a home run in taking the audience to a week-long program in Austin, Texas, where 1,100 high school boys attempt to build a mock government.
The prestigious program, Boys State, is sponsored by the American Legion and has been running across the country since 1935. It's where aspiring wonks go to revel in policy and the minutiae of governance and elections. Alumni include Bill Clinton, Neil Armstrong, Bruce Springsteen, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Bon Jovi, Roger Ebert, Roger Ailes, James Gandolfini and Dick Cheney, just to name a few. There's also a program for girls.
The filmmakers chose to film this particular session in Texas in 2018 after the previous year's class made the news for voting to secede from the U.S. That doesn't happen again. In fact the boys in this class seem almost embarrassed about the stunt, which is what they chalk it up to. As one explains, when you get that many 17-year-old boys together, sometimes jokes just get out of hand.
Not that their class was all business: Someone puts forth legislation to require Prius owners to relocate to Oklahoma, another proposes changing the pronunciation of the letter W to "dubya," and one hopes to protect against a looming alien threat. But for the most part, these teens are taking it seriously.
It helps that the filmmakers found a group of compelling, complex subjects to follow for the week (they had many cameras operating simultaneously to manage this verité coup). There's the son of an immigrant who considers himself a progressive and believes that people truly yearn for bipartisanship. There's the bilateral amputee who only ever wanted to serve in the military, but now has decided that policy is the way to go. And there's the floppy-haired jock who runs on an anti-abortion, pro-gun platform and who isn't as stereotypical as you might assume at the beginning.
They are divided, randomly, into Federalists and Nationalists and both groups can invent their own set of beliefs before putting forth their gubernatorial candidate. Naturally, the parties do start to resemble Democrats and Republicans, but it's at least something that they have the opportunity to create their own party lines.
It's no wonder why "Boys State" swept the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the grand jury prize. In this little microcosm you see not only a portrait of some serious-minded youths, but how their world views, morals and political beliefs have been molded by what's happening in the country. And it manages to be both hopeful and bleak about our political present and future.
Weirdly, one of the most moving scenes is totally disconnected from the point of the camp: A talent show, in which a united crowd rallies behind a tap dancer, a kid with an acoustic guitar and a heartfelt rendition of "Hallelujah" and another solving a Rubik's Cube while Europe's "The Final Countdown" blares over the speakers.
It's worth keeping in mind that these are, of course, minds that are still developing and on camera. Some are probably just out to win and entertain. And some are showing us their true selves. Like in the grown-up political world, it's sometimes hard to differentiate between the two.
"Boys State," an A24/Apple TV+ release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "for some strong language, and thematic elements." Running time: 120 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.