Since 1935, the American Legion has sponsored a program whereby teenage boys and girls attend a week long political boot camp in Austin, Texas. There, the teens are split by gender: Girls state and Boys state, and are further divided into two political parties: Nationalists and Federalists (an ode to the country’s first political entities). They then form their own mock elections to determine a government: replete with party chairs, representatives, treasurers, and the highest office, governor. Attended in the past by Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, and Rush Limbaugh, the seminar is meant to not only give students a crash course in government, and as a space to freely share opposing ideas, but as a launching pad to higher aspirations.
Among the compendium of participating young adults dressed in white t-shirts and slacks, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ documentary Boys State follows five teenagers in particular: Ben, Steven, Robert, René, and Eddy in their elections for governor. Though the quintet share wide-ranging political beliefs, and varying campaign strategies, each desperately wants to win. Boys State in some ways mirrors the fractured reality of our country, while providing a semblance of hope for the new leaders yet to come.
Boys State opens with Ben, a double amputee who claims to not “think of [himself] as white,” only as Ben. At first he holds aspirations of running for governor, but then realizes he might lack the cult of personality required to win. And more than anything else, Ben loves to win. Instead, he’s a better strategist, taking on a Roy Cohn/Karl Rove scorched earth mentality. During interviews, when the camera cuts to Ben, the teen often lounges across a large burgundy sofa, as though mirroring an apathetic Roman emperor readying to feed paupers to the lions. His opposition in the Federalist party is René, a sharp Black liberal Chicagoan fending off impeachment among the far-right component of his party. Often gutsy, René radiates every second on screen.
One candidate for governor on the Nationalist is Eddy, an Italian-American lad who many describe as a young Ben Shapiro. But the real battle ensues between Robert and Steven on the Federalist side. The pair couldn’t be further apart. Athletically tall and laid back, Robert is a white bro with aspirations of attending West Point. He possesses instant charisma, easily attracting many into his orbit. On the other hand, Steven is a first generation Mexican-American. His mother briefly began her journey in the country as an illegal immigrant, and he doesn’t come from wealth. Short, and sometimes soft spoken, Steven became inspired to pursue public service when he volunteered for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign. Unlike Robert, whose political viewpoints are made malleable in the face of a fever-pitched crowd, Steven speaks from the heart, even when his views aren’t politically advantageous.
As Boys State travels, the array of topics discussed by the teens mirror the polarizing issues most prevalent in the country today: gun control and immigration — and one in particular to Texas, succession. A mostly conservative bunch, the viewpoints are pretty well entrenched into the extreme corners of far-right discourse. These teens also fall into the same traps as current politicians. For instance, Ben believes a dirty campaign will win the day without realizing the long-term implications beyond winning. Robert parrots talking points he doesn’t believe in because he assumes that by feeding the loud minority their purported policy dreams he’ll claim victory. They treat their parties more like sports teams than a philosophical repository for ideas. For my money, Robert is probably the documentary’s most interesting subject. He’s the only person who gains new perspectives and personally changes for the better. He’s a hill of contradictions, yet is truly interested in doing what’s right.
None of this negates, Steven. The teen runs a clean campaign, and comes fully formed in his desire for compromise. Symbolically, Steven is a bastion of the American political reality we hope still exists. I won’t talk about Boys State’s ending, as not to spoil the film, but the conclusion quite literally rips your heart out. It’s an equal measure of an aspirational fantasy yet the pang of biting reality. McBaine and Jesse Moss treat these teens as adults, with the same level of respect the American Legion offers the students, by which they’re afforded thought-provoking debate and even better maturity. A richly complex film, Boys State offers a ruminative peek into America’s future.
A24’s Boys State is available on Apple Tv+ beginning 14 August, 2020.