August 03, 2020
The gloves and training wheels come off as a group of smart, poignantly naive and utterly insufferable Texas boys get together to simulate government
Boys State review – amazing study of teenagers running for pretend office
It’s not clear to me if this is a heartwarming study in young people’s idealism or a Lord of the Flies bloodbath with smug feral demons in white T-shirts. It’s not clear if it’s funny or tragic, if it’s reality TV or reality itself. But Boys State is as exciting and moving as Steve James’s high school basketball epic Hoop Dreams was a generation ago, with its emotional rawness, its guileless patriotism and capacity for hurt and wonder. We watch, in what feels like real time, as a group of ambitious teenage boys – smart, poignantly naive, utterly insufferable – get brutally acquainted with Kipling’s two “impostors”: triumph and disaster.
It is the story of Boys State, a kind of annual debate club in the US for 16 and 17-year-olds organised by the American Legion, state by state, a project invented in 1937 – and there is, to put it delicately, a bit of a 1930s vibe about it. But it’s avowedly there to inculcate citizenship and leadership among America’s youth and reintroduce the values of reasoned argument to a generation addled by the social-media screaming match. Some of America’s biggest political legends took part in their youth, and the film shows the famous photo of a teenaged Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK at his event. There are separate groups for girls and boys. Boys State is a little like the model UN, without the wussy liberal nonsense of pretending to be foreigners. The young people spend a week at the state capitol, run for pretend office, conduct boisterous debates and finally submit to a nerve-shredding election.
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