Boys State, a documentary by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (who've worked together and apart in the world of "let's look at this thing with a journalist's eye" PBS-esque documentaries for years; their chief collaboration prior to this was 2014's celebrated The Overnighters), is interesting or less-interesting for any number of different reasons, but I think my favorite thing about it, no question, is how well it works as a mirror of the viewer's own idea about the political process. I've seen reviews talk about how it gives the reviewer hope for the durability of America's democratic institutions; I've seen it positioned entirely in terms of the side it takes (Democratic) in the great partisan divide of the United States in the 2010s; I've seen it pessimistically celebrated for its unblinking cynicism in portraying the ugly calculations that go into the business of politics (this is the one I myself actually agree with).

That it can be all these things at once is arguably a sign that McBaine and Moss have not done sufficient work in deciding what they want the takeaway from their extremely and explicitly political film to be, but I would rather say, thank God they've done their job well. If Boys State can offer up variable, and in some ways mutually impossible readings, this is basically just because the film has taken the business of cine-journalism extremely seriously, and put in an effort to capture a situation on film simply in and of itself. The directors can't entirely get over the instinct to make things "cute", and so we get, most annoyingly, the opening credits, that briefly sketch out what the hell Boys State even is (a nationwide series of one-week "politics camps" for high schoolers, sponsored by the American Legion as a way of teaching them how the political process works; there are separate male and female incarnations of the event, a fact that one of the participants, once in the film, suggests is outmoded and bad, while the filmmakers don't seem to have given thought to the matter one way or the other), with winking references to some of the major national-level politicians who went through Boys State on their way to manhandling the levers of power. And all the way at the other end of the 109-minute film, it gets into cloying epilogues for the four boys it has shaped into its main characters, the usual sort of trite, emotionally overburdened boilerplate (complete with twinkly music) that tends to wrap up this kind of middlebrow "isn't this neat"-style documentary filmmaking in tidy bows.

For a pretty long chunk of the middle, though, they're absolutely nailing it; at its best, Boys State manages both to gawk at the inherently ridiculous nature of asking 1100 teenage boys to go through the process of a fake gubernatorial primary and general election, while also forming political party planks, all in six days, while letting the boys themselves take this as seriously or not as they choose to. The finished cut focuses on four boys, two from each of the randomly-assigned political parties, two gubernatorial candidates and two party chairs; this choice has obviously been made to maximise potential drama, and it might have been a good thing to get more of a sense of what the kids way down in trenches of this fake election think about the process, but the four main subjects do at least give us a nice cross-section of cynicism vs. idealism, and a belief in the process vs. a sense that this is all fun and games that looks good on college applications.

As I said, Boys State invites us to read what we want to into its portrayal of electoral politics, and I am happy to read into it a distinctly pessimistic view on how partisanship works and the bottomless cynicism of realpolitik. One boy throws some red meat to his mostly conservative constituency - the particular Boys State that the film is visiting is the one covering Texas, so immigration, guns, and abortion are the main issues most of the kids care about the loudest - and then later tells the camera, with a slight look of chagrin, that he doesn't actually agree with the point he was just making, but he knew that he had to say it in order to shore up his power. Nobody in the film seems to believe anything - they just imprint on the ambient ideology around them, and turn it into plans for winning power against the other side in a large-scale game of make-believe (nobody quite comes out and says that Boys State is fake bullshit and there's absolutely no reason to care about it, but only Chicago-born progressive and party chair René Otero seems to have any actual investment in what happens during the election, of the main people we meet).

I am not sure if the message "all politicians are empty careerists, trained from youth to view electoral politics as a chess game with no genuine consequences" is the message Boys State intended for me to walk out with, but this is the film's strength: it simply presents its material as straightforwardly as it can and lets us decide what to do with it. It's still locked into a desire to present all of this as a fun narrative about distinctive personalities, and this necessarily limits how much it can really show us - my heart cries for what a true direct cinema version of this would look like, rather than the kind of simulation of direct cinema that we get - but given how easily this could have become just a tedious series of uplifting anecdotes about The Kids and Democracy (especially with a professional panderer like Davis Guggenheim onboard as executive producer), that fact that this is so happy to show off some warts, if not all the warts, makes this a more engaging dive into a strange world than I was expecting.