Boys State (2020)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? New doco getting a lot of critical acclaim

Cast, crew, etc


Every year in Texas the American Legion runs ‘Boys State’, a political education program that mimics the structure of state government. 1 200 promising teenagers are brought from all over the state, arbitrarily divided into two political parties, and then set against each other. It’s mock political combat as each side picks a candidate, sets up a campaign, and tries to get their man elected ‘Governor’.

One of the amazing things about this documentary, which features several amazing things, is how quickly the boys of Boys State 2018 start to resemble every other politician you have ever seen. After maybe a day to find their feet, at most, the main players are at each others throats; spreading false rumours, talking out of both sides of their mouth, working every angle to get an advantage. For these kids it is not a bit of role play to teach them politics, it is a blood sport.

Fully in that mode is Ben Feinstein, the campaign chair for the more conservative of the two parties, a schemer who is not reticent about using ANY tools at his disposal. One of his tactics is to set up an Insta account, where the other boys can post edgy memes discrediting his opponent; an unpleasant and successful tactic, given even more verisimilitude when a racist post lands, and he backs away from the whole thing. But by that stage: damage done. Team Trump would be nodding in recognition.

But credit to the film makers: Ben, who could easily be villainised, is shown as an inspiring figure as well. A double amputee, he lost both his legs to meningitis, also has a misshapen arm, and his achievements are genuinely impressive. He is intelligent, and driven. His personality reflects a gaggle of disparate threads; cold blooded quotes like ‘I know when to make friends and when to make enemies’, sitting right alongside powerful declarations that he will not be held back by his physical situation.

Rene and Ben go head to head

The other political party is lead by two equally atypical characters; campaign manager Rene, a black kid newly arrived from Chicago, and candidate Steve, the son of Indian immigrants. In an almost unbroken sea of affluent white boys – Rene quips: ‘I’ve never seen so many white people’ – it’s interesting that these are the two chosen for leadership for the leadership. Their peers recognise their qualities; they are smart and articulate, and the fact that they stand on their convictions attracts followers.

The Democratic side of politics in the US is littered with idealistic types who inspired a grass roots following, and then fell apart when they tried to appeal more broadly. Think Adlai Stevenson, an intellectual who disdained conventional politics, Eugene Macarthy, a principled anti war campaigner who toppled Lyndon Johnson, and George McGovern, who Robert Kennedy called ‘the most principled man in the Senate’, and who lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon after a dirty tricks campaign. More recent examples include Howard Dean and Bernie Sanders.

Steve follows in the footsteps of these honourable failures. He energises his party with an electrifying speech during the primary campaign – the film’s standout moment – and runs on a moderate platform of common sense, centrist policies. And so is easily demonised by his opponents, who exaggerate his positions, and take advantage of his reluctance to fight back the same way. We have seen this for real, in many elections over many years, and it is alarmingly fascinating to watch it play out again, in miniature. The decent, idealist candidate, overwhelmed by the forces of negativity.

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain mostly keep a low profile. They have equipped the main players with radio mikes, and then watch the drama unfold; little directorial intervention is required, these charismatic kids are compelling on their own. But the film makers do capture the heightened atmosphere surrounding the event perfectly; the rallies, the late night convos, coverage via a faux TV station, a hilarious talent show. It is busy, energetic, relentless; just like the culture it reflects. It made me feel exhausted already, about the looming 2020 election.

This mock election goes the way you expect it will; but it is another tribute to the expert construction of the film that you are hoping it won’t. The confected drama, two made up political parties battling each other over a symbolic prize, is so absorbing, I was hanging on the outcome. And there is an upbeat coda; Rene wins a national debating championship, Steve addresses the Texas Democratic convention. Both deliver rousing speeches, their futures look bright.

The war may have been lost, but these kids have not lost their desire to fight. A hopeful final note, for a fascinating document.

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