Monday, January 25, 2021

Empire built from ground up seen in ‘Boys State’

By Cameron Kaercher

Since Apple TV+ launched in November 2019, the streaming service has been focusing more on their TV shows; with Emmy Award nominations for “The Morning Show” and “Central Park.” As they have tried to transition into the film business, Apple purchased a feature after it won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival.

“Boys State” is named after an annual summer camp in Texas. During this tumultuous week, a thousand 17-year-old boys are brought together to build a democratic government from the ground up. Over the course of the movie, we see the groups form platforms of political beliefs and electoral nominations of candidates, cultimating in the election for the governor of the state.

The 2018 Boys State was filmed for the documentary.

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss selected a few participating teenagers to focus the story on. Steven Garza is the closest thing to a protagonist, as he grows from a soft-spoken and earnest moderate to a prominent leader. Robert MacDougall is the photo negative of Steven, acting as a politician who loves shaking hands and pushing his slogans. Ben Feinstein completes the political intrigue triangle who is gifted at political strategy, and less gifted in public speaking.

The first act of the story has an interesting atmosphere. Everyone is on edge, trying to figure out where each other stands politically, and who the non-candidates should hitch their cart to. If you pay close enough attention, you can see some kids voice contradictory opinions throughout the week to fall in line with the rest of the group. The uncertain political stances are then juxtaposed with grand wide shots of them chanting “U.S.A.” together. They are also wearing matching white t-shirts and red lanyards, emphasizing the flock mentality. It isn’t too far of a stretch to think of “Lord of the Flies” in these scenes, but in this case — Governor of the Flies.

When the campaigning for governor starts up, the ages of the candidates start to fade away, as they begin to act like any other politician we know. There is mudslinging, digging into people’s pasts, and having to decide between extreme divisiveness or attempting to play both sides. The documentary seems to ask; are these philosophies naturally inherent in working with politics, or have they just been witnessed on the national level through the years, now being adapted into this narrative?

For the most part, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss maintain a direct, cinematic approach by just using talking-head interviews and footage from that week. There is no voice-over narration to guide the audience, which takes away a layer of perception that could be seen as bias. Everyone is given equal legitimacy by McBaine and Moss, which gives the viewer the opportunity to form their own opinions on these candidates.

In my opinion, “Boys State” is a good documentary, but not worth getting another streaming service for. It offers up a unique instance of teenagers actively participating in an election, but with another election a couple of months away, it might be more shocking to tune into any news station.

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