Apple TV+ film review: Boys State
Ivan Radford | On 14, Aug 2020
Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Cast: Rob McDougall, Steven Garza, Rene Otero
Watch Boys State online in the UK: Apple TV+
Boys State premiered on Sunday 9th August as part of Sundance London. For more on the festival, click here.
“It’s a game. I’d like very much to win.” Every year, 1,100 teenage boys head to Texas in the hope of being elected Governor. Over a week, they argue, debate, persuade and campaign the rest of the boys to vote for them, as people are elected to posts such as attorney general and party chair. With the whole gang split into two parties – Federalists and Nationalists – the result is the world’s biggest game of children playing politics since, well, politics.
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss take us right into the heart of the event with a staggering balance of access, honesty and entertainment. Taking what must have been hours upon hours of footage, they cut the youth camp into a gripping, thrilling story of backstabbing and genuine belief in the democratic system. Their research is no less impeccable, singling out some of the most charismatic and cynical (sometimes both) boys to follow. There’s Rob McDougall, a loud and proud Texan (pro-gun, anti-abortion); Ben, a Reagan fan and double-amputee who is smart enough to understand how the party fragments line up; Steven Garza, another Texan with Mexican parents and an underdog, centrist stance; and Rene Otero, an African-American who talks of unity and does so with real passion and skill.
“I’ve never seen so white people ever,” he jokes early on to the camera, and it’s those kind of asides that underpin the film’s remarkable microcosm of national politics and social prejudices – and, in some of its most eye-opening moments, the way that the shrewd followers of the former aren’t afraid to lean on the latter to get what they want. “You can’t win on a minority opinion in a democracy,” observes one, who’s unafraid to say what others want to hear to get votes. “Everyone has an underlying need of bipartisanship” we hear, as the extreme, divided community struggles with the notion of compromise.
There’s a darkly funny streak to what could almost be satire, but Armando Iannucci couldn’t write this better, as we see bickering infighting give way to absurd policy ideas – all of it unfolding just a year after the Boys State ended in a vote for secession from the United States altogether. And yet, underneath it all, there’s also a strangely satisfying note of hope, as we see a generation of young people who are fired up, engaged and eager to take part in democracy, debating issues with apparently sincere conviction.
That, of course, still comes with all the self-sabotage and manipulation you expect from older politicians, and there’s something unnerving about the knowledge that the names that catch our attention here might be names to notice in real life one day – and the boys probably are aware of that too. Highly entertaining, superbly paced and wonderfully candid, this is one of the most surprising documentaries of the year. Next please make about documentary Girls State, which unfolds every year at the same time.
Boys State is available on Apple TV+, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription, with a seven-day free trial. For more information on Apple TV+ and how to get it, click here.