One attends a festival in hopes of finding a film that leaves you giddy with how good it is, seeking always for that thrill gained from a sense of discovery, uncovering that gem before it gets to be seen by a larger group of people. It’s almost like a drug, where you take hit after hit of cinema just waiting for one to fully give you that rush.
This is one of those movies you spend days and days just hoping to uncover.
Boys State follows a bunch of high-strung Texan teens as they head to the Capitol in Austin to engage in political machinations. For decades the American Legion has sponsored “Boys State” events ostensibly in order to improve education in civics. A kind of summer camp for political junkies, this week-long event begins with the 1200 or so kids divvied up into separate parties – the Nationalists and the Federalists – and then tasked with picking party leadership, defining a platform, passing bills and, above all, electing a governor that represents the entire group.
Superficially Boys State plays as a conventional film about a grand event, not dissimilar to reality TV that follows a few key characters out of the myriad that attend the event. Jesse Moss (whose 2014 Sundance film The Overnighters is one of the greatest non-fiction films ever made) and co-director Amanda McBaine pitch most of the film on the shoulders of four participants, with the result being a simply astonishingly powerful and nuanced look at the machinations of politics.
We first meet Steven wearing a Beto O’Rourke shirt and explaining his parents are not at the bus stop to drop him off as they’re at work. We learn he got into politics thanks to Bernie Sanders, and has spent time campaigning against gun violence. Then there’s Robert, a square jawed dude-bro straight out of the John Hughes playbook, looking exactly the kind of kind that would roughhouse his way down the alleys of lockers at his high school.
René is a pursed lipped, extremely eloquent thinker whose personal views are far more to the left than the majority of participants. Through political savviness he tacks towards the centrist position and manages through some extremely effective speech skills to help move others to be under his sway, even if he earns some enemies on the way.
Then there’s Ben, perhaps the most Shakespearean of the group. Despite a physical disability, he’s as manipulative as anyone in the group. It’s easy to find comparisons between Ben and the likes of Stephen Miller, and while one may not share his ideology it’s hard not to respect his skills and determination.
The four represent various facets of a multitude of positions, most of them coming across as immature and underbaked as the rowdy group of young adults test the limits of their freedom, while others display a maturity far more developed than even that of many of the elected officials their seeking to emulate.
As the week plays out, what we witness with Boys State is nothing short of one of the most powerful articulations of the American political process ever set to film. You see it all – swings in party loyalty, dirty tricks, attempts at taking the higher ground, right through to grand pragmatic swings and deft campaigning. It’s an absolute thrill to watch, and the filmmakers at no time put their thumbs on the scale, letting the motivations and claims of the kids, even when contradictory, have an open space to be heard.
There are allusions to competition films like Spellbound and campaign docs like War Room, yet Boys State feels very much on its own. As the stakes of the campaign get higher, one can see rise almost organically the same forces that contributed to the contemporary situation of politics in America, laying bare the very mechanisms by which certain actions can trump certain doctrines.
As exciting as a sports movie and as nail-biting as any election night, Boys State is an instant classic, immediately inducted into the finest of political documentaries thanks to its impeccable filmmaking, the serendipitously excellent cast of participants, and its impeccable timeliness to shed light on the forces that shape contemporary elections. It’s exquisitely constructed with unforgettable moments. Simply put, Boys State is the best film of this year’s festival, and accomplishment worthy of as much praise as one could hope to muster. Whatever your background or political views this is mandatory viewing, a film that feels ripe to span sequels (Girls State seems an obvious follow-up), as well as a long-term project that follows this group as they attend university, enter into politics and turn their pretend politics into something real.
Smart, entertaining, darkly comic and profoundly unsettling, Boys State is simply brilliant, the best film of Sundance, and already in contention to be one of the best films of the year.
/Film Rating: 10 out of 10
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