What do you get when you give a thousand teenagers from Texas the power to run a government for a week and near limitless resources? You get Boys State.
Depending on your political leanings, this either good or bad. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, thankfully give life to both sides in the almost two hours documentary. Unlike most documentaries, there are no “bad guys”. Instead, there are people who make choices that act in their own self-interest and people who weigh both sides, and there is plenty of context given to those actions.
This context is provided via these interview-esque sections over the length of the Boys State gubernatorial campaign that gradually gets uglier, Boys State tends to shed a soft criticism of the candidates (most likely because of their age) but shirks the viewer of any terms of insight into the party politics that drove some ugly decisions. However, it does manage to portray our government and the systems that prevent our favorite policies or politicians at a disadvantage.
One downfall of the film is that we never see what the adults think about what the teenagers are doing or even how they came across Boys State outside of an opening explainer that is tossed away quickly. Another thing that’s tossed away rather quickly is how many of our former and current leaders have participated in Boys State events since the veteran-led American Legion formed the event in 1935.
One might think that since there are leaders like Cory Booker, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Eric Greitens, Mike Huckabee and so many more politicians and famous people like Garth Brooks, Tim Cook, Roger Ebert, and Jon Bon Jovi that the event would treat both parties equally. In the film, this event is portrayed more as a place to assert your dominance over the other party. With over 1,000 participants that are assigned to either the Federalists or Nationalists, those taking place in the event are left to do whatever they want, knowing that someone nearby might be running for governor.
Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine follow four of these participants as they war game strategies for their campaigns and reflect on what motivated that strategy. If you are unfamiliar with Jesse’s work, open Netflix. He has two other political documentaries called The Family and Dirty Money, both of which deal with what informs American policies behind closed doors.
Boys State is also an excellent portrayal of the psychological need to win. In its opening, a booming soundtrack follows many of the candidates as they race to attain signatures and stating the platforms they’ll run on, with some listening and others simply talking at their prospective signature. Much of the time, some of the responses to what platform the candidate is running on seems like a joke or registers as one. Over the film’s runtime, we learn this is not a joke and rather the way the politicians see the world.
As the film continues, the filmmakers manage to record speeches with angry crowds, where gun control and abortion rights reflect things that have become real political issues in barely-formed speeches, that likely reflect what they hear at home, speaking volumes about how we are becoming a more biased country by the second.
It’s not all chaos, as figures Rene Otero and Ben Feinstein seem to take a sense of pride in how they’re campaigning, with energy and strategy driving them towards the finish line. However, this doesn’t work in their favor. Rene, an African American who takes over office early on in the film, faces impeachment inquires after the people under his care call for secession. He is much of the driving force behind the film’s condemnation of racism in politics. Rene isn’t alone however.
Steven Garza is the heart of Boys State, a gubernatorial candidate born to immigrants who frequently is the target of negative campaigning due to his heritage. Despite this, his mental fortitude provides the film with an emotional center that provides the most insightful interviews. Concurrently, his goal of becoming governor is challenged by Ben Feinstein, someone that starts the film as someone you’d root for, as Ben is a double amputee trying to wade through the politics and find where he fits into all of it. Quickly though, Ben turns into a villain in the process because of his ruthless win or go home strategy, frequently skirting around his own morals.
As more time is spent with these candidates, the film becomes these series of small stories that grow to build a semi-complete view of Boys State and politics as a whole. Behind the scenes, the filmmakers showcase short sections of meetings from both parties listening to proposal for new laws like banning khaki shorts but the film never devolves into a social collapse. It also skirts around racism by mentioning someone’s skin color or heritage, but doesn’t delve into a discussion on racism in America. There’s also next to mention on what Girls State does to women, or what men being around other men skews the political beliefs of a candidate.
There is a certain intrigue to what is excluded here. The film takes place in Texas – a state on the verge of becoming a Democratic State yet the film takes the old-fashioned stance of Texas being this all-red state. Boys State takes that divide by showcasing biased instead, and how that can drive campaign strategies. As Rene says in one of his interviews, following a messy confrontation, “I don’t think being a fantastic politician is a compliment.”
Garza is much more of an optimist, looking to take this experience and put all of the lessons he learned into a career in politics, and allows for the film to have a two-sided conclusion. What the filmmakers say here about power is (pun intended) powerful, showcasing that too much of it can corrupt someone’s moral boundaries.
That’s either a neat way to diagnose the issues at hand with today’s polarized politics or an interesting picture of why Americans seem to be constantly screwed over by their politicians. Any way you slice it, Boys State will leave you interested in what these politicians do next. The film doesn’t take sides, leaving it up to it’s subjects to fix what’s broken in our country or light the fuse.
Boys State will arrive on Apple TV+ on August 14th.
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