By Alif Majeed.
Right at the beginning of Boys State, there is a scene where a teacher teaches the boys the difference between Brave New World and 1984, two staples of the school system. It is a subtle dig at how things would play out in the movie as Boys State almost portrays the titular convention as a totalitarian government and the camera following the main characters as a Big Brother-like figure.
Also interesting is the way they choose to show past Boys State alumni in the opening credits scene. The names that pop up instantly grab your attention and make you sit up and notice. It might seem like an underhanded tactic to grab eyeballs, but what comes after the credits is what truly stays with you long after you finish Boys State.
The Apple TV film by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss focuses on the yearly convention, which has been in existence since the 1930s. A legion of schoolboys gets together at the conference taking place in their respective states, the one in focus here is the 2018 Texas Boys State. However, it looks like a comic con for governance aimed at teenagers with a single uniformed costume. It manages to successfully bring out the emotions at play where the kids get to be part of opposing parties, namely the Nationalists and the Federalists and hypothetically play out the inner workings of the political system.
To streamline the film’s focus, the makers wisely train their attention on four students. Ben Feinstein, a double amputee whose knack at playing the political game with effortless ease, might feel horrifying or praiseworthy to others depending on your personal views. He realizes immediately where his strength lies and adapts accordingly, sometimes even single-handily turning the course of the events around if you believe the documentary’s timeline. (“I think he will be a fantastic politician. But don’t think it is a compliment,” one character says about him at one point.)
Steven Garza, a son of Mexican immigrants who has a powerful notion about what is right and wrong, and this would at various points of the documentary, hold him in good stead and drag him down. It is the battle for territory between the two that drives a good portion of the movie even though they rarely interact directly throughout the film.
It is telling though that Ben’s disability comes up as a clutch throughout the movie only occasionally, and the focus is mainly on his political stance. At the same time, his actions set him up as a villain of the piece, whereas Steven’s immigration status comes up multiple times to set him as the underdog.
René Otero, a skillful campaigner, is the third character given prominence here. However, a lot of his screen time is devoted to being one of the few black people around.
But my personal favorite is Robert MacDougal. His instant likability comes from his honest admissions (“My stance on abortion won’t sell so I choose a bigger easier topic”) mixed with his inability to cross the line, which Ben comfortably does.
There is a scene right before he debates with Steven where he gets some dirt on the latter. His attempt at a last-minute manipulation of Steven before the debate reminds you of Arnold’s takedown of Louis Ferrigno in Pumping Iron.
He knows who is the better person but decides just this last-ditch attempt at manipulating Steve. Even then, what endures is the fair warning he gives Steve about it. He almost looks relieved when he realizes that he might end up losing and now go back to having fun.
The trajectory and journey of these four protagonists are so compelling that you almost want to take a time capsule and go to the future to see how they ended up. Right before the end credits, the makers do show a small glimpse of where their future is.
The best thing about Boys State is seeing how the participants behave and react to their situations. Now it might not be a parable of what these kids should be, but it is a mirror into what they believe they should do. Many of them come in thinking personal attacks are the way to go, having already been hit with us or them syndrome long before they even started.
As you can see, a lot of them are here to have fun and are just excited to be there due to the history of the event. Some of the kids know manipulation is inevitable given what they associate politics with and the nature of Boys State. To see if they follow up on that very instinct or not is why this is a movie that is a must-watch.
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