*** Politics makes strange bedfellows, and as the new VOD release Boys State showcases, large-scale political simulations bring about some weird-ass dormmates. The documentary by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the married couple behind 2014's Sundance-winning The Overnighters, follows an engaging quartet—Reagan-obsessed double-amputee Ben, loquacious Chicago expat Rene, hunky silver-spooner Robert, and progressive Mexican American Steven—among the 1,100 teens invited to participate in Texas' 78th annual Boys State. Remarkably, apart from some sneering glimpses of a young Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and other members of the literal old boys' club, the camera rarely stops to relish the scenes of future policy wonks at the peak of teenage awkwardness. Considering that the documentary opens with a George Washington quote warning us about the tyranny of political parties and features spliced footage of a raccoon sifting through garbage, the filmmakers appear helplessly drawn to the nihilist joys of rooting on participants as they fashion fake platforms to sell fake campaigns for a fake governorship in a manner that is troublingly real. And while Robert's exceedingly electable brand of swagger is surely intended as a cautionary tale, there's no reason why natural charisma should be any worse a qualification for leadership than instinctive talents for demagoguery or manipulation. Even if this game isn't rigged, the best players feel inherently suspect, nevertheless. PG-13. JAY HORTON. AppleTV+.
Random Acts of Violence
** Serving as a fixture in the Apatow universe, directing a Canadian hockey comedy, and acting as lead voice in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, Jay Baruchel has a career that's pleasantly odd—and growing odder. For his second outing as director, Baruchel helms the Shudder original horror film Random Acts of Violence, a jittery and disjointed adaptation of the 2010 graphic novel. The rapidly escalating yarn follows comic book artist Todd (Jesse Williams, Grey's Anatomy) and his partner Kathy (Jordana Brewster, the Fast & Furious franchise) as they road-trip into the Great Lakes boonies. There, Todd seeks to conclude his Slasherman series once and for all, while Kathy reports on the serial murders that inspired the comics. And, would you believe it, people start dying gruesomely. Mirrored in Todd and Kathy's relationship, the film's most interesting feature, by far, reckons with artistic exploitation versus victim-oriented journalism. Through a self-aware script and Williams' agitated performance, Random Acts suggests a long look in the mirror that almost any crime story (true or not) could stand to take in 2020. Ultimately though, this 80-minute bloodbath is more entrails than brains or, worse yet, actual scares. Plots are gonna plot, and contrivances about the killer's interest in Todd and vice versa all but mutilate its knotty potential. NR. CHANCE SOLEM-PFEIFER. Shudder.
Words on Bathroom Walls
** Adam Petrazelli (Charlie Plummer) is, for the most part, an average teenager. He dreams of being a chef, cooks for his divorced mother (Molly Parker), and crushes on his cute tutor, Maya (Taylor Russell). At the same time, he has chronic hallucinations caused by schizophrenia. His new medication seems to be working at first, but when he begins to experience detrimental side effects, Adam must decide what's most important: his sanity, his relationship with Maya, or his culinary aspirations. Based on Julia Walton's eponymous novel, this coming-of-age drama is at its best when it's poking holes in the self-flagellating and false ideation that those who struggle with mental illness don't deserve love. It's an all-too-common burden to bear and quite an interesting one to explore, even if it occasionally feels crafted by and for people without mental disorders. For example, the over-the-top visualization of schizophrenia reads as inaccurate, and the three people Adam constantly hallucinates (a bohemian hippie girl, an often-shirtless playboy, and a raging bodybuilder) are stereotypical archetypes. Despite these trite flaws, the saccharine story itself is a valiant effort that could provide much-needed validation for alienated teens grappling with similar issues. PG-13. MIA VICINO. Virtual Cinema.