Director of photography Thorsten Thielow, director Amanda McBaine and cinematographers Patrick Bresnan and Daniel Carter behind the scenes in “Boys State,” which premiered globally Aug. 14 Friday on Apple TV+. Courtesy of Apple TV+

The documentary “Boys State” follows four Texas teenagers as they navigate the title summer leadership program in their home state, an intense week-long lesson in running for office and hard-nosed realpolitik.

The four young men occupy a range of descriptions and political positions: Ben is a person with disabilities who worships at the altar of Ronald Reagan; Robert is a preppy-looking Austinite who hopes to enter West Point; Steven, the son of Mexican immigrants, campaigned for Bernie Sanders in 2016; and Rene is a progressive-minded African American who has recently moved to San Antonio from Chicago.

As “Boys State” chronicles their campaigns for the leadership of their parties – and, eventually, Boys State itself – the film manages to capture what turns out to be a dramatic head-to-head competition between two of the principle protagonists, a made-for-the-movies showdown that, upon reflection, was anything but guaranteed.

As “Boys State” co-director Jesse Moss said in a recent phone interview. “There was Plan A and then there was the abyss.”

After all, what are the chances that out of the thousands of kids who attended Boys State in 2018, Moss and co-director Amanda McBaine would find four perfect subjects, two of whom would go the distance? But what looks like an amazing stroke of luck in “Boys State” was actually the result of an arduous process that’s rarely acknowledged in documentary filmmaking: casting.

Moss and McBaine, who are married, had spent months interviewing potential subjects, first on the phone and later in front of their camera. “It was almost like doing auditions,” Moss recalled. “But really they were just conversations with these boys. We met them in their living rooms, in American Legion halls, high school classrooms – anywhere we needed to go.”

Because Texas is largely conservative, they also wanted to make sure they found subjects with a range of views. “We found Steven at an orientation in Houston,” Moss said. “He was this quiet voice … but he has an old soul and a thoughtfulness and integrity. … We just knew he was really interesting.”

By the time Moss and McBaine got to Boys State that June, they knew they would focus on Ben, Robert and Steven. “We knew right away that they were exceptional, complicated, interesting kids,” McBaine said. Then, in the middle of a meeting, Rene stood up and delivered a barnburner of a speech, a moment captured in “Boys State” that was also the first time Moss and McBaine met him. “It was like, ‘Who is this adult in a sea of boys?'” McBaine recalled. “We cast him on the spot.”

Casting is a word usually associated with fiction filmmaking, wherein actors audition for roles in front of agents and a video camera, then wait nervously for call backs and news that they got the part. (Cue Emma Stone in “La La Land.”) Although documentaries are nonfiction, they are just as dependent on the charisma, appeal and watchability of the people who populate them – maybe even more so than their Hollywood counterparts.

Finding the right subject is “critically important” to nonfiction filmmaking, says AFI Docs director Michael Lumpkin, who theorizes that there are plenty of films that never get made because the filmmakers are unable to find a suitable protagonist. “There’s something about the person involved that tells the filmmaker this could be a great film. I think that probably happens more than we realize: You find a story and then you start doing the research and you find the people behind the story, and then you decide (if) there’s a film there.”

That’s precisely what happened with “Red Penguins,” a documentary about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ partnership with the Soviet hockey team in the early 1990s. The film’s director, Gabe Polsky, was reluctant to make the film at first because it covered some of the same ground as his 2014 film “Red Army.” He decided to film Steven Warshaw, who was the Penguins’ representative in Moscow and a pivotal figure in the story, in front of a camera. “If he’s not exceptional, there’s no movie,” Polsky explains. “So I went to New York and got a little crew to shoot it, just to get the story and to be able to tell how quirky he is. … I did that interview, and not only did I get the full story to make sure it was big enough, rich enough and interesting enough, but he was funny and weird – the whole thing.”

Indeed, Warshaw proves to be a lively, absorbing, self-aware raconteur in “Red Penguins,” which benefits from a colorful cast of real-life characters both in the United States and Russia, including a former KGB agent and a fugitive from international justice.

It’s rare to find an engaging film about an issue that doesn’t have a compelling figure at its core: Without the heartbreakingly sympathetic basketball players William Gates and Arthur Agee, “Hoop Dreams” would have just been a movie about high school sports and exploitation; without the self-destructive, self-deceiving Timothy Treadwell, “Grizzly Man” might be a movie about the dangers of hubris and anthropomorphism.

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight.” MUST CREDIT: Sabrina Lantos/Magnolia Pictures

Which makes it all the more impressive when an issue-oriented film winds up being a character piece. When Elyse Steinberg brought her partners Josh Kriegman and Eli B. Despres an idea for making a documentary about the ACLU, her aim was to chronicle the most pressing civil liberties cases being litigated during the Trump administration. The team began filming ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, who had helped overturn Trump’s Muslim ban in 2017, and eventually followed four of his colleagues as they represented cases addressing transgender, reproductive and voting rights.

The resulting film, “The Fight,” provides a deep dive into those policies. But it’s also a surprisingly entertaining group portrait of lawyers who emerge as smart, stylish and often amusing characters in their own right – especially Gelernt, whose haplessness with technology becomes a running gag in the film.

During a recent Zoom panel about the film, Despres called it “a weird piece of synchronicity that these critical huge cases at the center of American conflict right now would be being fought by these incredibly quirky, brilliant people you can’t take your eyes off.”

The fact that “The Fight” wound up being so engaging surprised Joshua Block, who can be seen in the film working with his colleague Chase Strangio to allow transgender people to serve in the miliary. “I was like, ‘This is going to be a really boring movie,'” he recalled. “We’ll talk on the phone a lot and ride on trains, and who’s going to want to watch this?”

But Strangio pointed out that, in some ways, lawyers are natural performers. “Being a litigator … has a very theatrical component to it,” he noted. “Not that we’re acting, but the process of telling stories is what we also do in one way or another.”

That said, Despres acknowledges, lawyers can be counted on to stay in character, on and off the screen. “We do have outtakes of 50 million hours of people reading or typing that didn’t quite make it into this movie for some reason.”


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