Making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the enthralling and massively entertaining documentary Boys State hits streaming this weekend and announces itself as one of the year’s best movies. Chronicling the 2018 edition of the American Legion leadership program that gives the film its name, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine showcase the hundreds of Texan teenagers who gathered to construct a fictitious representative government from scratch. Over the course of a week, the spirited youngsters divide up into two parties of Nationalists and Federalists and elect officials in positions ranging from party chair to governor.
Though they capture input from many of the participants, Moss and McBaine focus on a handful of teens who seem to show the most promise from the outset. There’s Federalist party chair Ben Feinstein, a quick-witted, conservative-minded double amputee who quickly learns the lay of the land and boosts fellow Federalist Eddy Conti to gubernatorial candidacy. Comparatively, Nationalist Steven Garza is more reserved but no less inspiring as a sincere progressive inspired by the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders. Other Nationalists who rally behind Garza for governor are the eloquent and charismatic party chair René Otero and square-jawed rabble rouser Robert Macdougal.
What’s most fascinating about Boys State is how thoroughly it lays out the beauties and shortcomings of the American democratic process within the context of the current political climate. Though it’s explained early on that the Nationalists and Federalists needn’t adhere to any “guidelines” set by the existing Republican or Democratic parties, it doesn’t take long for the two groups to resemble their real-life counterparts. The testosterone-driven electorates are only slightly exaggerated cyphers for the actual crowds of rally-goers who express their approval or dismay in no uncertain terms. The process of watching the candidates feed off of their energy and change their political strategy accordingly is fascinating to behold.
Lest I make the movie sound like something only a polysci major would enjoy, it’s crucial to note that Boys State is a fun watch even if you favor the personalities over the politics. There is plenty of humor and tension as these strangers come together, try to figure each other out and build something meaningful in such a short amount of time. “I think he’s a fantastic politician,” Otero says of rival Feinstein. “But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment either,” he adds after a beat. As the film moved breathlessly to the climactic election night, I could not have been more captivated while waiting to hear the results, even knowing that they didn’t have any actual consequence on the real-life political landscape.
McBaine and Moss, the latter of whom headed up the terrific 2014 doc The Overnighters, weave together all of these public and private moments with both commendable sensitivity and spellbinding momentum. Since 1937, the Boys State program has produced scores of notable alumni from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton and even film critic Roger Ebert. After seeing this movie, it’s difficult to imagine that ambitious figures like Feinstein and Otero won’t one day have political influence which matches that of the program’s biggest breakouts. Equal parts riveting and revealing, Boys State is a vision of American politics that distills our hopes and fears into one supremely entertaining package.
Score – 4.5/5
Also new to streaming this weekend:
Available on Netflix is Project Power, a New Orleans-set action movie starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt about a pill that gives the taker superhuman abilities for five minutes.
Available on Disney+ is Magic Camp, a family comedy starring Adam DeVine and Jeffrey Tambor about a struggling magician who returns as a counselor to the camp he attended as a child.
Available on demand is Sputnik, a sci-fi horror film starring Oksana Akinshina and Fyodor Bondarchuk about the lone survivor of a space accident who is unknowingly harvesting an alien creature in his body.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup