Boys State reveals a microcosm of modern political theatre

This film follows the Texan summer camp where high school juniors learn the rudiments of governing. Plus: Romanian documentary Collective

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If Richard Linklater adapted Lord of the Flies today, the result might resemble Boys State. This documentary follows the 2018 male intake at an annual summer camp in Austin, Texas, where high school juniors learn the rudiments of governing. For one week, a thousand successful applicants campaign, elect one another and pass bills, just as alumni Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Cory Booker once did. These greenhorns in white T-shirts and red lanyards cascade across campus, a gushing stream of idealism, arrogance and testosterone. Some give passionate speeches in the race to be governor. Others do back-flips. Beat that, Biden.

The film-makers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss mostly avoid point-scoring, give or take the shot of a raccoon rummaging in a bin immediately after gung-ho chants of “USA! USA!” are heard. Marshalling a 28-strong crew and multiple cinematographers, they zero in on a handful of candidates. Ben, who lost both legs to meningitis as a child, has a talking Ronald Reagan doll and a bee in his bonnet about anyone who doubts America’s greatness. Steven, whose mother is Mexican, caught the political bug from seeing Bernie Sanders, and has a gift for considered argument. Robert, a jock with the complexion of a sliced white loaf, challenges rivals to push-ups.

René, one of the few African Americans there (“I’ve never seen so many white people – ever!”), brings to the table his experience of working with ex-convicts, as well as the habit of balancing his spectacles on the end of his nose like Professor Yaffle in Bagpuss. Meanwhile, the pint-sized pretty-boy Eddy emerges as a front-runner for governor. His best feature? “My abs.”

[see also: How can film narrate the climate crisis?]

Anyone who baulks at sitting through another US election should rest assured that Boys State is something of a palate-cleanser after this year’s horror show. There is still plenty to be concerned about in these budding politicians. A dirty tricks campaign swings into action with nauseating speed, offering a microcosm – as indeed the whole film does – of modern political theatre. It is astonishing, too, to see how much energy everyone expends on defending the second amendment when they are all so close in age to the victims of high-school shootings.

Many of the attendees are already plotting how to control women’s bodies. They have abortion on the brain: put some of them on a podium and they instantly become robotic anti-termination Terminators, psychotically fixated on foetuses and firearms.

Robert is among them, though it is he who becomes the film’s unlikely star. While Steven and René are its standout heroes (watch for their names on the Democrat ticket in 2040), it is Robert who undergoes the most dramatic education. Witness his crestfallen expression as he hovers in the wings, having just given a whooping speech that neither roused the rabble nor represented his true beliefs, only for Steven to dazzle the crowd with dignity, empathy and honesty.

In a chastened post-debate interview, Robert confesses that he sold himself out needlessly. Pro-choice at heart, he didn’t believe he could win from that minority position. “I’ve got a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office,” he says, reeling slightly at his own candour. Cinema has been noticeably light recently on blockbuster spectacle but the sight of this malleable young man learning about himself in real time as the camera rolls can feel as wondrous as any special effects.

The sobering Romanian documentary Collective begins inside a Bucharest nightclub in October 2015. “Something is on fire,” the singer points out from the stage. Within seconds, the room is all raging flames and stampeding bodies, the air ringing with screams. There were 27 fatalities that night and 180 injured. Unbelievably, what happened next was even worse.

Of the hospitalised survivors, 37 died – at least 13 of whom were killed by bacterial infections. Government corruption had already led to the fire but a new investigation by reporters on the Sports Gazette revealed that the systemic poison spread deeper and higher than originally thought. Hexi Pharma, which received the government healthcare tender, had supplied severely diluted disinfectant to hospitals. Surgeons had effectively been sterilising their equipment in tanks of bacteria; the bodies of burns victims were crawling with maggots.

As the film moves from the dogged journalists to the offices of the cheery, new-broom health minister, its approach is clear-sighted and unfussy. The dramatic material includes stake-outs, a suicide which might be murder, fraud to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros, secret footage from hospital whistle-blowers, even the spectre of organised crime – all conveyed without music or manipulation, just the facts laid out like scalpels. Any similarity to beleaguered healthcare systems, rigged tenders and government cronyism far beyond Romania is, I’m certain, purely coincidental. l

“Boys State” is on AppleTV+. “Collective” is on Amazon, Curzon Home Cinema and other digital platforms from 20 November

Boys State (12A) 
dirs: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Collective (15) 
dir: Alexander Nanau

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump

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