*** out of **** (3 out of 4 stars)
Starting in 1937, the American Legion began sponsoring an annual, week-long gathering of both male and female high school juniors (eventually taking place in all 50 states) with the intent of introducing them to what could rightfully be labeled a crash course on American Civics on steroids.
Perhaps the best keep secret not officially part of the U.S. education system, the "Boys State" and "Girls State" programs boasts a veritable who’s who of famous alumni including Samuel Alito, Jon Bon Jovi, Garth Brooks, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Roger Ebert, James Gandolfini, Mike Huckebee, Rush Limbaugh, Jane Pauley, Ann Richards, Bruce Springsteen, and Jerry West. These are just a few in the eclectic mix of past participants who all have at least one thing in common: they're all overachievers.
It’s clear from the onset that the four featured principals in "Boys State" are indeed overachievers as well. All are immediately engaging, eminently watchable, but not always likeable. Nowhere is it written or assumed that a documentary can’t provide the audience with only facts, but also heroes and villains and from that perspective, "Boys State" more than delivers the goods.
It's on other levels that married co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss sometimes miss their mark — whether intended or not.
Opening in with a title card containing a threadworm quote from President George Washington, an unidentified man — presumably an adult overseer for the event — reads aloud passages from George Orwell’s “1984" and Aldous Huxley’s "Brave New World" and asks the boys what they think the quotes mean and their answers are, if not spot on, close enough on intent. It’s an encouraging good start.
The choice of hosting the event in the saturated blue city of Austin in the otherwise deep red state of Texas was a narrative masterstroke.
The 1,000 or so attendees are randomly divided up upon arrival into two groups – the Federalists [read: conservatives] and the Nationalists [read: liberals].
Based on what happens in the rest of the film, these divisions seem anything but arbitrary and/or random.
Almost immediately, the movers and shakers begin wrangling and pleading in an aggressive and most seasoned manner of those operatives during real election campaigns.
The only goal is to get enough signatures to qualify for governor consideration (the highest available office), regardless of qualifications. One guy’s primary attributes are he’s somewhat smooth and kind of looks like Ashton Kutcher.
Another looking for the same office is a Latino who never hides his admiration for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and is everything his possible opponent is not: authentic, genuinely likeable and hungry for all the right reasons.
Seeking other positions are a very eager to please type whose principal identifying traits are his collection of Ronald Reagan dolls and a propensity to infuse the word "like" and phrase "you know" into "sincere" conversation with the reckless and meaningless abandon of a "Valley Girl."
Although he is also physically challenged, he never uses that as selling point but does rely on it as a rallying cry later on.
The most interesting participant by far is Rene, a guy seriously angling for a future job as a press secretary already clearly adept at spinning defeat and outrage into in art form.
At various points, Rene speaks on guns rights, his own possible impeachment, state succession and the idea of proposed castration (yep, you read that right) of convicted felons.
He also delivers two of the film’s most memorable quotes, "I’ve never seen so many white people — ever" and (when describing an opponent) "he’s a fantastic politician and I don’t mean that as a compliment."
While often drawing narrative parallels to "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), "The Lord of the Flies" (1963), and "The Fly" (1986), "Boys State" occasionally flirts with elements of exploitive and staged, B-grade reality TV and taking up valuable time with meaningless, yawn-inducing talent contests.
Not yet able to legally consume alcohol or join the armed forces, these young men are already adept at seasoned horse-trading, unscrupulous rumor-mongering and politics-as-a-blood-sport levels of treachery.
Some many say this type of win-at-all-costs behavior is merely a reflection of the times we live in, where professional for-life politicians sling-mud at their targets with the accuracy of a Nolan Ryan fastball which is correct but is also somewhat incomplete.
What’s going on in this movie not only dates back to the birth of our nation nearly 250 years ago, but to the Roman Empire — and likely the dawn of man. All of us should be grateful we live in a country (at least for the moment) where everyone can voice their opinions, however unpleasant others may think it.
"Ain’t that America?"
"Boys State" in now available to watch on Apple TV+.
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national media outlets, is currently the only newspaper-based film critic providing original content in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace and co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film related articles and is one of the scant few conservative-minded U.S. film critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here."
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