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Review: 'Boys State' riveting documentary introducing teenagers to politics

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

"Boys State," the Sundance award-winning documentary about a weeklong political camp for teenage boys sponsored by the American Legion, is one of the most thrilling and harrowing cinematic experiences of the year. It is potentially the most culturally relevant film of the fall, masterfully made and one heck of an emotional roller coaster. From moment to moment "Boys State" veers from exciting to troubling to amusing, and it's never anything less than utterly riveting.

It's a perfect match of subject and filmmakers. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss previously collaborated on the Sundance award-winning doc "The Overnighters," a shocking, twist-laden film about oil workers flocking to North Dakota, and the pastor who takes them all in. Moss also recently directed the Netflix miniseries "The Family," about the secretive Washington, D.C., organization behind the National Prayer Breakfast that grooms young men for political office. His films are unflinching and keenly observant, doggedly determined to root out truth. "Boys State" is similarly sharp-eyed, and as the events of the camp unfold, McBaine and Moss take the audience along on this decidedly unexpected journey.

Boys State (there's also a Girls State) is a camp put on by the American Legion to introduce teens to the election process and civil discourse. The film follows the Texas group, where over the course of a week, 1,100 teenage Texans, gathered in Austin, are randomly divided into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, where they are to create a leadership system and ultimately elect a single governor. You will not be at all surprised that rowdy electioneering, rampant partisanship, viral misinformation campaigns and sometimes total chaos ensues. But there are also a few surprising glimmers of hope as well.

At first, things seem stressful for any kid who isn't a white good ol' boy hooting and hollering about the Second Amendment. But a few surprising stars start to emerge, including Rene, a Chicago transplant who leads by his grandmother's example (complete with tiny reading glasses perched on his nose), and Ben, an inspiring speaker, survivor of childhood meningitis, and double amputee, who turns to steering the party leadership when his dreams of securing the gubernatorial bid dissipate. Then there's Steven, the son of Mexican immigrants who arrives wearing a Beto T-shirt, and whose humble, heartfelt speeches cut through the boys' rowdy antics and get straight to the heart of the matter: connection, communication, cooperation.

The journey that is "Boys State" is constantly surprising. At first the boys are tribal and somewhat terrifying, play-acting and posturing at "politics" and "masculinity." They scream intense rhetoric as a way of conveying power, but then try to pass legislation about aliens and pizza. They're not quite boys, not yet men. But when they start to let their guard down and actually listen to each other (and some of them are such compelling speakers that it's impossible not to), one starts to feel a fondness toward them, as they fumble toward earnestness and true connection.

The Boys State program is a microcosm of our government and our country, and "Boys State" the film allows us to witness the reflection. As the Federalists and Nationalists descend into a campaign of unabashedly dirty politicking and rah-rah sports-like competition, the viewer is impelled to reflect upon the George Washington quote that opens the film, about the destructiveness of the two-party system. "Boys State" doesn't offer any easy or pat resolutions as to our future as a nation. It's at once bleak and optimistic, offering up the nuanced notion that even if the kids are alright, it's the system that needs an overhaul.

'BOYS STATE'

4 stars

 

Cast: Steven Garza, Rene Otero, Ben Feinstein.

Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.

Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language, and thematic elements.

Available Friday on Apple TV+

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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.