(director/writer: Amanda McBaine/Jesse Moss; cinematographer: Thorsten Thielow; editors: Jeff Seymann Gilbert/Michael Vollmann; music: T. Griffin; cast: Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Rene Otero, Robert MacDougall; Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Amanda McBaine/Jesse Moss; Apple TV +; 2020)
“Like a reality TV show cinema vérité.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The film opens with a stern warning by President George Washington about how political parties”subvert the power of the people.”
The documentary is like a reality TV show cinema vérité film. It was the Grand Jury Prize winner in 2020 at the Sundance Festival. Co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”), a married couple, film the annual leadership conference that since 1937 has been run by the American Legion (There’s also one for girls) in every state. This Boys State was filmed in Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2018, where the majority of the 1,100 high school student 17-year-old boy participants are conservatives and white. The boys are divided up into opposite political parties, the Nationalists (progressives) and the Federalists (conservatives), and they try to set-up a mock political government and see if they can run it. Each side chooses someone to run for governor and a chairman for their parties. It takes 7 cameras positioned in different parts of the sprawlng venue (the Clark Field sport courts) to cover the big event.
The 4 boys followed are all compelling. The extrovert liberal African-American Rene Otero is a Chicago transplant who brashly quips, “I’ve never seen so many white people ever,” who is chosen party chair of the Nationalists. He has the ability to overcome an attempt to impeach him. The bright and personable Ben Feinstein — a double amputee (caused by a childhood case of meningitis) is from San Antonio and a Reagan fan. He is chosen to be chairman of the Federalist side. The privileged right-wing teen from Austin, Robert Macdougall, a hopeful prospect to attend West Point, is a lively campaigner who knows how to work a crowd. He reminds us most of our two-faced contemporary politicians, as he conveys to us to get votes he will not follow his own convictions if it stands in the way of his success. For instance, he tells us “My views on abortion, as a pro-choice supporter, wouldn’t line up with most of the conservative boys out there, so I chose to change my stance.” The hero of the film is the soft-spoken Mexican immigrant Steven Garza, from Houston, calling himself a progressive, whose mom was an illegal but has since become a citizen. Steven becomes the Nationalist candidate, and is an advocate of gun-control–his main issue.
Running for governor against the underdog Steven is the handsome cowboy boot-wearing Robert, who appeals to the crowd and counts on Ben to run for him a dirty campaign.
I really don’t know what the film tells us about the future of our country (if anything) and if there’s hope for the future because of these opinionated smart boys. Who knows? But it was a breezy and enjoyable documentary that I wouldn’t count on to predict the future, as it only tells us what we want to take away from it and nothing more concrete.
Boys State alums include Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and Cory Booker, certainly a diverse group.
REVIEWED ON 8/28/2020 GRADE: B-