Boys State (2020)

Boys State captures the gorgeous monstrosity of modern American politics with startling accuracy.  So many emotions blur together, like watercolors on a painter’s palate:  Infectious idealism, ugly ambition, hopeless resignation, and outright hostility.  By the end of the film, these colors form a dragonscale gray, the perfect texture for a writhing, roaring beast.  Normally, a documentary about our sharpest young minds should inspire hope for our nation is going.  Instead, Boys State paints a frightening portrait of where we are right now.

Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the film whisks us to the 2018 Texas Boys State Conference.  Over a thousand politically ambitious boys assemble to form makeshift political parties, build idealogical platforms, and elect officers.  

Boys zeroes in on a select few participants, all of them unified by some type of uniqueness:  The son of Mexican immigrants, Steven Garza is a progressive in a stormy sea of hyper-conservatives.  Ben Feinstein is a self-deprecating double amputee, who displays a real gift for cutthroat political maneuvering.  René Otero is black transplant from Chicago who serves as Feinstein’s liberal counterpoint.  A charismatic erudite, Otero proves to be one of the most forceful personalities at the entire conference.  Finally, Robert MacDougall a blustery, outgoing alpha male, serves as the film’s fascinating paradox.  

MacDougall runs against Garza in the primaries for Boys State governor.  He barks in right-wing generalities about how abortion amounts to government sanctioned baby-murder and somebody somewhere is gonna try and take yer guns away.  All four boys get talking head pieces, and MacDougall uses his as a confession box:  He’s actually a pro-choice with surprisingly progressive views.  In a moment of subtle sadness, MacDougall tells the camera that he can’t be who he is and get elected, so he just yells what people want to hear.  To his great credit, once MacDougall figures out that Garza is the real deal, he says nothing but complimentary things.

The race for governor showcases one of Boys State‘s most alarming theses:  In this era of 24-hour infotainment, the campaign for high office has devolved into something between a mangy dog-and-pony show and a morally bankrupt quest for Prom King.  Anybody who wants to win anything has to be willing to grease up and go for a tussle in the pig slop.  Even Garza, the most simon-pure presence in the film, brings one near-fatal weakness deep in the heart of Texas:  When a neighboring school got shot up, Garza organized a march for school safety.  His opposition pounces and paints him as a tenderfoot, hard on gun-owners and easy on criminals.  Does Garza compromise himself and heave mud back at his opponents?  Or does he take the road less traveled and lose?  

I won’t spoil his decision, because part of this film’s magic lies within its ability to surprise you.  Whatever your political proclivities may be, Boys State is likely to make you laugh, make you angry, or even inspire you, sometimes within the span on a single speech.  The opening credits show us all the great leaders who got their start at Boys State.  We also get a good idea where the seeds of all our current political division were once sown.  The epilogue to Boys State does supply a little hope that somewhere within the ranks of our youth, someone can slay the monster our political process has become.  

109 min.  PG-13.  

See also: 

Irresistible (2020)

 

 

Author: Todd Wofford

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