Before the opening-credits montage, we receive a grave warning from Boys State regarding the phenomenon of splitting the political establishment into two parties. The first comes via a quote on a title card courtesy of George Washington, who warned that such a set-up could cause intense division. The second comes from a lecture that offers a solid reminder of why Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World always depicted a more terrifying alternate future than the one in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for one specific reason: Orwell was searching for the questions to ask how we might arrive at that place, while Huxley already had the answers.

It’s a chilling start to this documentary about a group of hundreds of boys gathered in Austin, Texas, to take part in a truly bizarre experiment. They are all politically active 17-year-olds who are given the opportunity to build an entire state legislature, electing mock state and municipal officials under the guidance of the American Legion, an organization made up of war veterans and headquartered in Indianapolis. The experiment is divided into two parties – the Federalists and the Nationalists. Each party will come up with a platform and elect officials to each of its offices. Here, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine primarily focus on the elections to office of the major executive positions.

The focus narrows almost immediately to the individuals who will vie most seriously for those positions. Ben, who becomes a frontrunner for the Federalists, is an admirer of Ronald Reagan and a bilateral amputee, having lost both of his legs and much of the functionality in his right arm to meningitis at the age of three. Robert is a moderate Republican who has decided to jettison some of his actual beliefs to play the politics game. Steven is an immigrant’s son and a moderate Democrat who primarily believes personal liberty is fundamental to a functioning democracy. René is seemingly one of the few African American participants, the left-leaning eventual frontrunner for the Nationalists.

There are others here, too, seen in a flash and all worthy of examination, giving the impression that this material might have benefited more from a serialized treatment. So much occurs over a relatively short period that it is easy to forget names and details and party affiliations. This could be counted as a misstep of scale, and the feeling of overexertion does occasionally get in the way of genuinely engaging with the human subjects. At the same time, it is a thrill to watch clearly intelligent young adults-in-the-making engage with politics in such a way that it inspires hope in the generation to which they belong.

The drama is relatively minimal until the final stages of the process, during which the candidates are exposed to the types of claws-out politicking that elections can inspire. René is the target of a racist attack by support for his opposing candidate, Robert’s attempt to play politics falls flat when the issue of practicality comes into the equation, and a candidate named Eddie, who has been receiving comparisons to Ben Shapiro in his debate style, emerges as a serious contender late in the game. It all leads to the elections themselves, in which some win, some lose and an enormous emotional release occurs – the only kind that can be caused by spending time with lots of people for a few intense days.

Moss and McBaine capture all of this with surprisingly cinematic grace. Instead of simple shot set-ups, their camera weaves through and around these young men, though one could chalk that up to simple geometry and logistics, given the number of people in any given gathering. Talking heads are limited to moments when the foursome are truly exposing their inner selves and opening up. Boys State works surprisingly well as a primer to understand the event of the title, but it works better as a way of seeing the political process through young eyes. These boys may be inexperienced in the adult parts of that process, but they have a lot of promise.

This entertaining documentary sees the political process through young eyes.
80 %
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