By Leah Greenblatt
August 11, 2020 at 07:58 PM EDT
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Thorsten Thielow/Sundance Institute

Politicians, like pigeons, are the kind of creatures we generally don't get to see much of before they're fully grown. For more than 80 years, though, the American Legion-sponsored Boys State has worked as a kind of local incubator for aspiring governors, policy wonks, and even presidents (Bill Clinton, Neil Armstrong, and Dick Cheney were all teenage members; so were Michael Jordan and Jon Bon Jovi).

Over the course of a single week every summer, the program's rising juniors gather in their various capitols to hold mock elections, run mock legislatures, and have very real arguments. In 2018, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine took their cameras down to Austin to capture the annual Texas session and came away with their own take on the modern State — a messy, riveting portrait of democracy, writ small and drenched in teenage hormones.

Though it's styled as a classic fly-on-the-wall documentary, Boys State (playing one night at select drive-ins Aug. 12 then streaming Aug. 14 on Apple TV+) arrives with enough immediate heroes and villains to stock an entire high school House of Cards: the rangy, calculating jock who selects his platform for mass appeal, not personal beliefs; the son of immigrants whose stirring speeches call for a greater less partisan good; the aspiring power player with a Stephen Miller gleam in his eyes.

As some 1,100 boys argue earnestly about guns and God, immigration and abortion, the movie — a Grand Jury Prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival — toggles between courtroom-style drama, character study, and reality show, with an occasional Christopher Guest-style wink toward absurdity.

One moment, the boys seem almost frightfully precocious — perhaps better suited to public service, even, than the adults currently making a mess of it in D.C. The next they're just kids, playing at a game they only half understand. That can make the shifting stakes of State feel a little opaque, and its ending rushed. (The boys also seem radically, inexplicably unsupervised, unless that's just an editing trick). Mostly though, State tells a story both heartbreaking and hopeful: part C-Span, part Lord of the Flies, and wholly unforgettable. A-

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