This documentary of Texas teen politicians in action projects a view of the future that instills both hope and fear.
Directors Amanda McBaine (The Investigators) and Jesse Moss (Dirty Money, The Overnighters, The Bandit) follow the annual experiment in democracy sponsored by the American Legion as it unfolds in Austin, Texas in 2018. What brought this convention to their attention was the vote taken the previous year to secede from the Union.
Boys State and its gender segregated counterpart, Girls State, have been in operation in each state since 1937 as a training ground for “future leaders” including Cory Booker, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Ann Richards among others. McBaine and Moss spent time observing the 2018 class to find those few boys who might emerge as leaders not only here, but in the future.
Legion members interview and choose 1,000 17-year-old boys to come to the capital to learn how to build their own government from the ground up. The boys form parties, called the Nationalists and the Federalists, create platforms and choose candidates. Sometimes the issues and the debates are predictably inane, but there are also undercurrents of real politics at work. The candidates create campaigns and give persuasive speeches. The factions present themselves to try to win election to the ultimate prize, Governor.
What makes this a compelling piece of filmmaking is how McBaine and Moss worked with a crew of 30, dispatching multiple cameras looking for gripping personal stories along with the political narrative. They told us in Q & A that to get that “eyes-everywhere” feeling of the film, there were up to 7 cameras rolling and 6 units tracking several of the boys. When the political parties met in convention or for votes, the scenes were shot from multiple angles so it could be cut like a drama. It gets pretty tense. The directors say they go from being boys to men in one week.
What emerges are a series of plot lines concerning four boys who are alternately engaging, poignant, funny and, at times, frightening. There is real anticipation and tension as candidates are eliminated and the film leads towards the election and the night the votes are counted.
The key to making this film was for the filmmakers to choose “the boys who would inspire and surprise us.”. That was genius. Their ability to single out and smartly “cast” their main characters is impressive. Ben Feinstein, who walks on prosthetic legs is a brilliant, even frightening tactician who has no regrets slipping the proverbial knife into an opponent. He is s a risk taker and not one bit afraid of anyone or anything.
René Otero, recently transplanted from Chicago, is an unabashed liberal and a person of color who’s been dropped into the middle of a “Purple” universe. Upon arriving he admits that he’s never seen so many White people in one place at one time. René is a colorful character with a glib sense of humor whose comments about the process are very entertaining. His best line delivered is when he surveys the Texas political landscape and says, “Every Liberal needs to see this.”
Robert MacDougall is the good-looking, charismatic character who is a simple opportunist. He’s got the gift of gab and is perfectly willing to lie about his beliefs in exchange for a vote.
But the most compelling storyline revolves around Steven Garza, the Nationalist gubernatorial candidate. He does not come from privilege. He is passionate and takes this opportunity seriously. He only wants to make his family proud. His agenda includes pushing for universal background checks before gun purchases and other issues that are not the most popular to an audience of Texans. He actually cares about what he’s proposing and in the process Garza becomes the sentimental underdog favorite.
There is a feeling that the cameras are always in the right time and place to capture all of their thoughts out loud. A personal point-of-view shot is also employed that gives us, the audience, what it feels like to walk up to the microphone in front of this rowdy assembly. We experience this through one of the candidates who blossoms in that spotlight, Steven Garza.
The film shows how seriously some of these boys commit to the process and how much they learn about how government and campaigns work. This film could not be more relevant or enlightening than right now, in this Presidential election year. McBain and Moss are incredibly adept filmmakers and this is one monumental project well-crafted and extremely informative while entertainingly intense.
A24 105 Minutes PG-13
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