Despite the clarity of its intentions, democracy is a complex system, one fraught with riddles and contradictions that have to take into account not just the diverse needs of human beings from different cultures, genders and socio-economic backgrounds, but their inherent hubris. Each democracy operates under a different system, but few are as dramatic, complex and as indicative of those conundrums as the United States of America. It's a system that impacts not just its own citizens, but people all over the world, and in order to master it and harness it, you must understand it.
In 2018, documentary filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss were able to witness such an initiative in action. Every year, over a thousand teenage boys from all over Texas gather together for a week-long civics camp that takes them through a compacted version of the U.S. state political process. Split into Nationalists and Federalists, the boys must form a government, establish a policy platform, decide on their candidate for Governor and launch a campaign to get their candidate elected as State Governor. What McBaine and Moss witness is a staggering portrait of America through the eyes of ambitious, idealistic and intelligent young men, and a collision between the pressures of the political system and the fragile construction of young masculinity.
The scale of 'Boys State' is enormous, both in its visual scope, capturing an endless horde of teenage boys, resplendent in matching t-shirts, youthful abandon and bursts of acne, fuelled by soft drink and hormones, against the backdrop of the Texas state capital, and in its thematic scope, speaking to the hopes and flaws of the system as viewed through the generation set to inherit it. That generation is represented in the film by four boys, all of whom end up playing key roles in the Shakespearean drama to unfold - Robert, a handsome white conservative whose brash confidence hides idealogical surprises; René, a young black man trying to find a place within a predominantly white conservative Texas without sacrificing his conviction; Ben, incredibly ambitious and highly intelligent, determined to overcome his disability and play the power games of politics to the advantage of his party and its conservative ends; and Steven, a progressive from a Mexican family with enormous empathy and heart who, like René, must find a place for himself within a room of people who look and sound nothing like him, and who ends up becoming the unexpected hero of the story.
The stage is set with our four protagonists in place, and what results is an endlessly fascinating, deeply thrilling and, at times, unexpectedly horrifying epic, where the political stakes of this role playing become secondary to the hearts, minds and souls of these young men learning lessons about the machinations of politics they don't see coming. We meet them with their minds sharp and their convictions shaper, but watch as all four realise that the former must win over the latter, that politics is just as much about compromise as conviction. It's a realisation that Robert must concede to, that René must harness, that Steven must marry with his empathy and that Ben must wield as a weapon. The beauty of 'Boys State' is that, because McBaine and Moss have their cameras so firmly fixed on the experiences of these young men, as well as the cavalcade of characters they come in contact with, we learn these lessons with them, enriching our appreciation and frustration with the complexities of the system, one that can only function with the left and the right in balance.
What makes 'Boys State' such a moving experience is seeing these lessons, not through the eyes of hardened politicians who understand the rules of the game, but through young minds for whom even this pantomime of politics deeply matters. We're thrown right into their boisterous, bombastic performance of puberty and masculinity, but we're also reminded that these are fiercely intelligent teenagers, "qualified men of skill and character" who care deeply for politics and for their country, regardless of where they fit on the political spectrum. They're having fun playing in the arena of adults, but they don't come unprepared. And yet, they are still young idealistic men who can't not care about what they're doing, and every conflict, every contradiction, every failure and every victory matters to them, regardless of the fact that all of it is fake. The emotional core of this film is so strong, built of such integrity, that you enter it expecting to nod knowingly at the flaws of the U.S. political system and leave it emotionally exhausted. You care about every trial and tribulation in 'Boys State' because they care.
The magnificent drama McBaine and Moss capture, with starling immediacy and shocking intimacy, is the stuff storytelling dreams are made of.
The magnificent drama McBaine and Moss capture, with starling immediacy and shocking intimacy, is the stuff storytelling dreams are made of. Each turn holds an unexpected surprise, as the emotions and dreams of these boys collide headlong into the monolith of politics, as they scramble to get to the top by any means necessary. The decision to choose these four boys - especially Ben and Steven - becomes the film's miracle, charting the full backbone of the program and seeing the primal hopes and dreams of these boys battle to the death. It's the closest any film has come so far to matching the Shakespearean awe of 'The Social Network' in its balance of social commentary and the hubris of human ambition and integrity, and you can feel the filmmakers leaning in with eyes wide in disbelief at the magic their capturing with their cameras. As the film thundered towards its climax, you hold your breath in giddy anticipation for what comes next. How these incredible young men will see themselves and their futures by the end of this crazy week is what is at stake - not the state of U.S. politics, but by extension, that's exactly what is at stake. Every day, the news from the United States fills us with horror and dread, baffled concern for what America is now. In these young men, we get a vision of what the America to come might be, equal parts awe-inspiring and disturbing.
Few films this year had me on the edge of my seat as much as 'Boy State'. By the end, I was gasping, crying, laughing and cheering at its audacity, its energy, its ferocity and its humanity. This is documentary filmmaking at its best, finding an incredible premise and remarkable protagonists engaged in an unbelievable story that is so much bigger than itself. Even just rewatching the trailer before writing this review, my breathing quickened and my eyes welled up and my skin prickled just remembering the experience of it. 'Boys State' is an absolute revelation, a blockbuster of a documentary, a rollercoaster ride of endless shocks and surprises, and easily one of the best films of the year.