Published on August 17th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
This Sundance winning documentary about a massive mock-election summer camp is a fascinating, dimensional examination of American democracy or the lack thereof.
The kids are alright.
Wait, are the kids alright?
That’s the kind of mental gymnastics Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ captivating new documentary puts you through. Boys State, a fascinating glimpse into an annual mock-government summer camp run by the Texas American Legion, simultaneously feels like a demonstrative statement and a leading question. For an hour and a half, we get to witness the remarkably organized clusterfuck that is 1,000 seventeen-year-old boys forming political parties, running for office, and engaging in all the snide trickery involved with winning a campaign. And while the film often takes the form of an inspirational ode to a generation often written off as completely apathetic, it also stands as an organic metaphor for the shattered nature of ideology, nationalism, and bipartisanship in contemporary American democracy.
The efficacy of this doc is in the poised blending of those two very different ideas. It’s plain to see that the boys are there to do one thing and one thing only: win a goddamn election, just for the entirely constructed glory of it all.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. They’re also at the camp to figure out who they are, to give themselves a healthy dose of self-esteem. And that is what makes Boys State both a commercial for the camp and an indictment of it. The ultra competitive nature of this mock-election process illustrates the rot at the core of American society, the ideological schism mixed with the general fervor for navel-gazing that we see raging around that weird country. Yet, the camp also susses out that very electrifying American je ne sais quo that makes its citizens so proud—that pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Protestant ethic. And thus, the age-old debate about bias vs. truth in documentary filmmaking seems rather paltry; this doc proves that great non-fiction filmmaking is about tessellating between the nuances of those fringes on the spectrum.
The camera remains (mostly) unobtrusive, capturing everything from the hot-headed machismo of the party rallies to the private moments of strategizing, fraternizing, and awkward attempts at social interaction. In a way, it’s a tapestry of the timelessness of teenage angst in all its productive glory as well as its cringe-inducing pitifulness. The film’s naturalism is remarkable considering the subject matter; teens are not the demographic of people who you’d expect to behave organically and not play to the cameras. Perhaps it’s a testament to the ubiquity of technology these days that the boys seem rather non-plussed by the presence of the documentary crew.
There are a few contrived little snippets that rubbed me the wrong way. Awkward inserts of attendees staring at their phones—on their screen are certain very on-the-nose signifiers. At one point they cut to a kid scrolling through Instagram, happening upon a Morpheus meme that says, “What if I told you that both political parties work for the same corporations.” In another instance, a bit of an awkward scene unfolds in which two boys stare at pictures of one of the gubernatorial candidates engaging in an anti-gun march. These little moments are quite obviously spliced in to prop up a subtext that is already quite well-received. The filmmakers show such fidelity to their Frederick Wiseman-esque, verite approach throughout the film that it is rather disheartening to see them lose that faith in a couple moments. It’s very hard as a filmmaker to trust in the material and not overthink it; some of those clunky little bits of thematic performativity seem symptomatic of being on the losing side of this weird game of chicken they must’ve played in the editing room.
Nevertheless, the film shines because of its willingness to mostly let the subject matter do the talking. Because it takes place in a state so right-wing, it’s hard for the film not to play with a sort of ominous vibe when the gun-loving, abortion hating nutjobs get to say their peace. Additionally, the more progressive candidate in the election gets probably the most screentime and the most audience sympathy. But those aspects seem to emerge organically from the subject matter, being perpetuated not by the filmmakers, but by the collective behavior of the subjects themselves and the natural contrasts that emerge between them. A compassionate audience (which documentaries are usually targeted at) will likely form a kinship with the Nationalist (Rene and Steven) rather than the Federalists (Eddy and Ben). But that is not because of a bias so much as it is because Rene and Steven are fair, honest, and altruistic.
Perhaps that is the point the film is really making: that when viewing a microcosm of a democracy like America, compassion and level-headedness emerge as socio-cultural touchstones worth striving for. Or maybe you’ll see it and just feel like America is doomed. After all, the Federalists do end up victorious. But either way, this film works as a piece of fascinating, persuasive evidence.
Boys State is now available to stream on Apple+. Or you can just torrent it. I don’t really care.