Boys State (2020)

“Who we elect matters. How we elect matters.”

My biggest takeaway from Boys State – an expertly envisioned and crafted documentary covering an annual assembly of aspiring politicians – can be found in a fleeting bit of dialogue. “People don’t like the word compromise,” we hear from one of the young men in the heat of a mock election. It’s so true, and the words help narrow in on one of the prevalent issues in American democracy. Our political system (and many around the world) is flat-out broken, and arrogance, mixed with lethal levels of ignorance, have proven to be deadly in small doses. Can America and its tattered Bald Eagle wings be mended? Boys State seems to believe it’s possible, but also suggests the system might ignore the needed patchwork altogether in order to maintain power.

With a brief run time and few seconds wasted from open to close, Boys State assuredly inaugurates its tone and informs the ignorant in the crowd to its history, using pictures as an adequate segue before proper introductions finally commence. I’d never heard of this American Legion sponsored program before, nor had anyone I’d mentioned the film to. But this is a big deal, and seems to be the kind of name tag event teens with a predilection for politics are obsessed with. The politics and party interests involved mean nothing, but at the end of the day there is still a winner and a loser. The latter point exposes why their are inherent flaws in our system; people who are inherently good can be bad solely for the sake of winning. Then it continues. On and on it goes.

What’s so cutting and so exposing about Boys State is the easy manipulation and radicalization of fundamental beliefs and ideals, and how they can concretely shape popular opinion rather than gently influencing personal conscience. Separated into factions of Federalists and Nationalists, it’s easy to peel back the curtains and paint each “party” with their rightful colors. The Federalists, with a smart Latino candidate, are so progressive they nearly undo themselves during the Gubernatorial race. Meanwhile, the Nationalists deploy a young man who recites talking points and data, all while another conducts smear campaigns behind the scenes. I shouldn’t need to tell you which one bleeds blue and which one wears red.

Co-directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse MossBoys State will undoubtedly be one of the best – and perhaps the most telling in our election year – documentaries of 2020. Through the incredible amount of access the filmmakers were given, they were able to piece together a film that works as both observer and commentator, showing and sometimes telling us how and why our politics have become as deeply divided as ever. In a few sequences, with young men sharing outrageous policy ideas for laughs and shouting for impeachment without seriously considering the consequences, Boys State plays out like a modern and scarily real Lord of the Flies. The descent into hysteria is a scary one. Curiosity makes me hope to one day see a companion piece called Girls State, a similar and separate convention, if only for the sake of comparison. I’m sure their circus rings of politics would be more graceful and mature. There might even be room for compromise.

“Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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