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film review

Robert MacDougall and Steven Garza in Boys State.Courtesy of Apple TV+

  • Boys State
  • Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss
  • Classification PG; 109 minutes


3 out of 4 stars

In the documentary world, timing is everything. Oh, and resources. And energy. And pure, dumb luck. Really, producing a doc that speaks to the moment – that precisely captures the culture without feeling gimmicky or slapdash – requires a chain of events lining up just exactly right.

Some documentarians seem to have a knack for conjuring this irregular formula, or have possibly sold their souls to some cinema-minded Satan, so fortunate have they been to push out productions with just the right amount of zeitgeist flavour (hello, Alex Gibney). Maybe Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss should be investigated for witchcraft, then. Or maybe they just happen to be immeasurably lucky.

René Otero and other Boys State Texas participants. The documentary is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Aug. 14.Courtesy of Apple TV+

However the pair’s new film Boys State managed to spring into existence, audiences should be grateful. Following the American Legion-sponsored Boys State, in which 1,000 teenage boys gather at the Texas State Capitol to form a mock government, McBaine and Moss’s film is a doc for this precise moment of 2020. For anyone wondering just how the United States government has plunged its populace into the current state of national unrest – if only the country was dealing with a pandemic, and not a hundred other equally pressing crises – here is your answer.

But any doc director worth their grant money can find a good subject to cover. Plus: McBaine and Moss were the beneficiaries of a critical signal boost when in 2017, the year before they filmed, the Boys State caucus sparked nationwide headlines when the young men decided to have their faux-government secede from the state of Texas. Yet merely documenting such an event is easy – finding compelling characters and crafting a propulsive narrative is something altogether different.

Ben Feinstein, left, a compassionate and committed idealist in Boys State.Courtesy of Apple TV+

By employing a seemingly endless number of videographers and by luckily honing in on just the right participants, McBaine and Moss cover the entire ground of Boys State with an unparalleled passion and fervour. If it feels like the filmmakers are just as much part of the event, it’s probably because they are. This is documentary filmmaking on a grand, immersive scale.

Still, despite McBaine and Moss’s impressive resources and reach, the stories and themes that surface here should strike most audiences as obvious. Namely: Yes, the political system is so broken because we continue to allow it to be run by broken people. Politicians are craven and driven by all the wrong reasons, and though the pair uncover a handful of hopeful voices – especially Ben Feinstein, a compassionate and committed idealist – you will likely exit the world of Boys State as cynical as you entered it.

At least McBaine and Moss have a built-in sequel ready to go, if they should so desire: Every summer, just across the hall from where the boys set up shop, the American Legion hosts a Girls State, too.

Boys State is available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Aug. 14

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