Adults who have a decent investment in the state of the political world are almost uniformly fed up with the unending partisanship on display from the main two parties in the United States. Given how fraught the landscape is in politics, it’s a wonder anyone would willingly subject themselves to a system that would seem to have little, if any, rewards.
Any world, however, can look different if seen through the eyes of young people. Politics is both idealized and exploited in the fascinating documentary Boys State. A yearly event put on by the American Legion, Boys State is a national program that gives an opportunity to high school senior boys (and, yes, there’s a similar program just for girls) to create their own version of state government.
The film, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, chronicles the goings-on at the Texas event in 2018, which featured over 1,000 participants descending upon the state capitol in Austin. The event splits the boys into two parties, named either Federalists or Nationalists to ostensibly head off any ingrained beliefs of real-world parties. After that, they jockey among each other to run for positions ranging from state party chair to governor.
The filmmakers focus on a variety of boys, including Steven Garza, who arrives in a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt and appears to be a liberal needle in a conservative haystack; René Otero, whose strong voice and opinions earn him both praise and scorn; and Ben Feinstein, who has disabilities that haven't dampened his sense of self, an attitude that helps him become respected by the members of his party.
The film is remarkable for a variety of reasons, including its scarcity of adults. Save for a brief opening sequence, almost no adults are shown in the film, which gives the event a freewheeling atmosphere that’s both chaotic and structured at the same time. The filmmakers also appear to have had unfettered access to every aspect of the event, which allowed for them to capture moments that are bracingly honest.
Since the group is made up of adolescent boys, the ability to take the proceedings seriously varies widely. While many of them approach different political issues with the gravity they deserve, at least one candidate running for governor runs on a platform of getting people to laugh at his penis jokes. Surprisingly, the former group seems to win the day, although there is plenty of macho posturing throughout even the most thoughtful debates.
While it’s difficult to fully grasp the intricacies of how Boys State works, the filmmakers do a highly effective job of bringing out the personalities of the boys. The beliefs of individual viewers will likely have them rooting for one boy or another to succeed, but the great thing about the movie is that none of the boys are solely defined by their own political beliefs.
The roads the two parties take at this version of Boys State may have you alternately having hope or despair for the future of American politics, but the film itself is a master class in characterization. No matter where their lives take them, many of these boys seem to have what it takes to be leaders.
Boys State, produced by A24, debuts exclusively on Apple TV+ on August 14.