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Review: 'Boys State'

I’m not sure what Boys State is, but it’s not what I’d call a documentary film.

I know it is being categorized as a documentary film. I know that it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival for Best Documentary.

All I can say is that if it is being labeled a documentary film, it represents a new kind of hybrid documentary film genre, one that is a more than a little disturbing to me.

I’ve raised the question in the past about whether any legitimate documentary film achieves what it sets out to do, namely, offer a truthful, unbiased investigation of its subject of subject matter.

The problem is that the very presence of a camera and camera crew complicates things and changes things, people know they are being photographed.

Essentially, it’s what is known as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in the world of physics.

When you put a thermometer into a cup of hot coffee, the temperature of the thermometer changes the temperature of the coffee.

Philosophically, it raises the fun-to-think-about question of whether you can ever measure anything accurately.

Boys State is getting a lot of attention. The timing of its release couldn’t be better.

It’s a movie about politics being released during the final months of the 2020 Election Campaign. And it has an interesting perspective.

A self-description says that it is about a thousand 17-year old Texas boys, selected by members of the American Legion to spend a week in an artificial political bubble in which they build their own representative government from scratch and then hold their own election for the office of governor.

They converge on Austin, Texas in a real-life political environment where their energy, enthusiasm, idealism and naivete become the heart of the film.

From the start, Boys State seemed a little strange.

I actually double-checked that what I was watching was a documentary and not an independent feature.

From the outset, it seemed contrived and manipulated.

It seemed to be staged for the cameras.

There was an artificiality to it that drew attention to itself.

In terms of style, it lacked the feeling of spontaneity that underlies most traditional documentary films.

The camera is always exactly where it should be. The coverage is always perfect.

You could argue that the filmmakers were on a streak of the most incredible luck that anyone has ever experienced and that everything just magically fell into place.

Anyone who has ever made a documentary film (I have made several) would say otherwise.

Before the student election process is underway, the film crew is already following around the handful of key players who will emerge in the unfolding drama.

It looks and feels like a scripted project. I’m not saying that it was. But it sure looks like it was.

There are puzzling little details.

At one point, two of the boys are having a private discussion outside, by themselves, next to a tree.

The camera is not only there, just several feet away, to record video and audio in a medium tight shot, it cuts to an even tighter shot from a second camera that would have been visible from the first camera shooting the 2-shot coverage.

The longer Boys State played, the more it appeared to be a spin-off of a reality show.

There were contestants in a competitive environment forming alliances and tribes, scheming and conniving to win all the while baring their souls to the ever-present cameras that miraculously captured every intimate detail.

In that regard, Boys State had much in common with Survivor or Big Brother or any of the other shows spawned by the mega-success of TV reality show entertainment.

If you call Boys State a documentary then you have to create a whole new genre of documentary enterprise that would include reality television as well.

It would have to be one in which the rules and guidelines were relaxed sufficiently to include scripted, staged moments.

The problem here is that, by definition, we’re talking about something that is more fictional than real.

While I’d like to say that Boys State was at least engaging and entertaining, it fell far short of that.

The young, would-be politicians and lawmakers struggle with issues like abortion and gun control, in an attempt to appear informed and opinionated.

They wrestle with the dilemma of having to sell out one’s own thoughts and convictions in order to gain popularity and support.

It’s a surprising moment of insight for a bunch of guys purporting to be so passionate and knowledgeable about politics.

People who are into reality show TV might find Boys State to be passably interesting.

People who enjoy more traditional documentary film probably won’t.

I know that the folks at Sundance loved it.

I’m generally a big fan of that festival and the movies that emerge from it.

In this case, I’m allowing for the possibility that the thin air in elevated environments can sometimes play tricks on your brain.


Boys State is on Apple TV+

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