"This is the most interesting conversation I have ever had in the festival". This was my neighbor sitting next to me at the movie theater in Salt Lake City, Utah. We were discussing our visions for flourishing lives prior to watching Boy State, the Grand Jury Prize best documentary winner at Sundance Film Festival. Little did we know, Boy State, a political coming-of-age picture, revolved around a vision of the flourishing life too.
Boy State was directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, collaborators of the 2014 acclaimed indie production The Overnighters, known for its "disquieting moral complexity" .
Boy State tells the story of four 17-year-olds at the 2018 one-week summer program with the same name organized by American Legion. In this program, high school juniors play mock politics: assume randomly assigned party membership, write platforms, run campaigns, and celebrate elections for public office at the local, county and state level. With that, Moss and McBaine again delivered a morally disquieting film--not for nothing, The Hollywood Reporter called it "this year's American Factory" and it sold its distribution rights to Apple and A24 for $12 million, the highest bid for a documentary at Sundance.
Boy State started filming without a defined story before hand. In the way of Honyeland, Academy Award's first nominated film for both best documentary and best international feature, Boy State is filmed in situ. It literally follows three boys without knowing where they might take the story, and as the documentary progresses, a fourth one gets included in the drama. Thus, Boy State first achievement is its cohesive story considering the risks to attain it.
Boy State is also a coming-of-age-story, exploring young psychological and moral growth during a relatively short period of time. As such, Boy State extraordinarily captures a powerful teenager evolution, in a sole week, attesting to the complexity of the teenager soul, but also society's role towards it.
Although it happens in a mock scenario, Boy State reflects our current social stand. For instance, Ross and McBaine capture cynicism, chicanery, and morally dubious ambition-the win-at-all-cost ethos. One boy confesses to hold a campaign far from his convictions because he wants to win. Another justifies his trickery because the fulfillment of his role requires it-he also wants to win. Ironically, a third boy acknowledges that being a good politician in these terms is not necessarily a win. A sort of What-do-you-benefit-if-you-gain-the-whole-world-but_lose-your-own-soul? idea.
In this sense, Boy State also reveals the unchecked nature of society around defect and default. Other reviews have complained on how the film fails to call out this attitudes but precisely this gives Boy State's its disquieting aura. It provokes to wonder who is responsible to call out injustice or defend virtue. As the absent program's monitors in the film, are there, or should there be, any moral overseers?
Boy State is also optimistic, particularly regarding growing and learning from triumph and defeat. For instance, one boy matures to understand the value in diversity, despite his uniform upbringing and context; a talented African-American orator emerges victorious after deceitful portrayals of his political exercise; and the fourth boy included later in the film actually swims upstream to gain both candidacy for the highest office in the program, and the viewers hearts and minds. In fact, it is inspiring to witness his capacity to reconcile opposing political perspectives-for some, clear statements of good and evil.
However, the most positive connotation in Boy State is the healthy potential of discursive spaces for contention and representation of interests. Without such spaces, our increasingly pluralistic communities, defending different, and at times incompatible, visions of desirable lives would turn violent. Plural representation allows these contending visions to prove their worthiness or corroborate their meaninglessness. Whether this is what our current political arrangements promote is a debate for another time; nonetheless, Boy State shows how iterative opportunities to discuss contending visions of flourishing lives can inform the search for the common good and truth.
As most documentaries premiered at Sundance, therefore, Boy State is more than a feature film. It is a snapshot of the sensitive youth that will define the political arena in times to come. It is a provocative story about young potential and social responsibility; to the upcoming generations that will shape the future; to our pluralistic societies that deserve and need spaces for deliberation and representation; and to political engagement. In other words, Boy State is a discussion of visions of flourishing lives.