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'Boys State' Is a Rollercoaster Through Modern US Politics

Dir. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss — 5 Stars

"Boys State" (2020), directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.
"Boys State" (2020), directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. By Courtesy of A24
By Nuri Bhuiyan, Crimson Staff Writer

In the aftermath of one of the most divisive US elections in recent memory, A24’s recent release “Boys State” provides a timely, thoughtful look at America’s political landscape. A political documentary directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, the film follows the Texas Boys State, an annual one-week program where a thousand high school students are put to the task of creating their own government. With dynamic shot composition, intimate character development, and a well-paced story, the film serves as a stunning microcosm of the state of US politics.

The cinematography and editing in “Boys State” creates a comprehensive and immersive experience. The director of photography, Thorsten Thielow, provides a strong sense of both breadth and depth through sequences that feature a carefully patterned array of wide, medium, and tight shots. Each shot builds upon the previous one with increasing momentum, such that the film is able to convey the intensity of the Boys State program well. The competition feels incredibly real and the teenagers’ investment in it wholly believable. Thielow also uses unique framing and moving shots to highlight important moments, such as at the State Chair election where the camera pans around a candidate on stage until he's silhouetted against the crowd, their arms in the air and fists pumping. These dynamic choices capture the raw energy and suspense of his rousing speech.

The speech was delivered by René, who ended up winning the position for the Nationalists Party. A Black American and the eloquent and snappy voice of left-leaning politics at the program, his is just one perspective viewers are given access to. Others include Ben, a Reagan-obsessed intellectual; Robert, a crowd pleaser willing to give up his personal beliefs to get the vote; and Steven, the “quiet of the storm” progressive son of an undocumented immigrant. Their diverse backgrounds and beliefs serve as launching pads for the issues that rise to the top of debates, such as abortion and gun rights.

Unsurprisingly given all the debates, The Texas Boys State is a heavy, high-strung environment, and yet McBaine and Moss are able to mediate and relieve the tension with impeccable control and timing. While on one hand, "Boys State" reveals much about political anarchy and stifling masculinity, these hefty themes are carefully interspersed with heartfelt speeches and calls for love and connection.

The film is all about this balance between hostility and peace. This is evident in the film's nerve-racking run up to speeches for the highest office, the Governor, where René is pictured drinking out of a water gallon jug and Steven is aggressively biting into a sub. This tense moment concludes with Steven finally on stage, but abandoning his notes and delivering a speech from the heart that results in a cathartic and tear-jerking standing ovation. We have displays of traditional masculinity with raucous chanting, frequent and fierce sports contests, and numerous passionate anti-abortion speeches on one hand, but there is also the lighthearted and even contemplative Talent Show where a boy races the clock to finish a Rubik’s Cube and the audience waves their phone’s flashlights to a sobering performance of “Hallelujjah.” Seemingly meaningless moments, like a rotating shot of the decorative ceiling of the Texas State Capitol, a scene where a Boys State participant pets a turtle, and a view of the trees in Austin as the sun peeks through, abound in the film and act as pillow shots that give the viewer the opportunity to digest the events prior. It's this tonal balance that creates the necessary space for the film’s heavier questions without overburdening viewers.

Intense, thought-provoking, and optimistic, “Boys State” represents all the boiling tensions of modern US political discourse. In its documentation of a riveting Boys State gubernatorial race, "Boys State" also acts as a timely companion to the recent Presidential election and a thoughtful exploration of many of the questions left in its wake..

— Staff writer Nuri Bhuiyan can be reached at nuri.bhuiyan@thecrimson.com.

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