Depending on one’s perspective, the American political machine invites both cynical and idealistic interpretations, and Boys State embodies both of them. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s sprawling look at the weeklong Texas event, where sixteen and seventeen-year-old boys create their own representational government, provides a compelling window into the cutthroat instincts that can inform the campaigning process, even without the future of the republic at stake. Juggling several mini-profiles over the course of an election cycle that gets dirty, Boys State might occasionally soft-petal its subjects, but its doing so attempting a balanced perspective at a moment that demands more partisan insight. The film manages to capture the systematic forces behind American leadership, and why it always seems like such an uphill challenge to put the good guys in charge. Adults consume such little screen time that the movie, in some ways, is kind of like Peanuts with civic lessons. As Boys State explains upfront, the veterans association American Legion has assembled the eponymous gathering at states around the country since 1935, with alumni including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Cory Booker.
The spectrum of famous leaders might suggest that Boys State embraces a bipartisan approach, but the Texas event often unfolds more as a battlefield. With participants assigned to dueling political parties called Federalists and Nationalists, the 1,100 participants are left to their own devices as they assemble campaigns for a range of leadership positions, with a few ambitious kids eyeing the top role of governor. Moss and McBaine follow four of these enterprising characters as they assemble campaign strategies and argue through ideologies while reflecting on the motivations behind it all. They excel at capturing the subtle factors that inform the American identity, and Boys State works best when exposing the gathering as a hidden force with the potential to shape generations of political careers. The film also does well at capturing the rush and desire to win, as we see early on, several of the young candidates speed around chasing signatures and spouting priorities, with some participants clearly taking the experience more seriously than others.
The filmmakers record dramatic (and sometimes awkward) campaign speeches with riotous crowds, where issues like gun control and abortion echo real-world talking points in clunky, half-formed argumentation that suggests many of the candidates have simply regurgitated the broad perspectives they absorb at home. That itself speaks volumes about the cycle of political biases in this country. However, the inmates aren’t entirely running the asylum. The key figures at the center of Boys State all display serious investment in their campaigns, with a remarkable degree of energy and intellectual rigor driving them forward. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work in their favor. Rene Otero, a young man who takes over his party’s leadership early on, but soon faces calls for his impeachment after some of his rowdy citizens make ludicrous calls for secession.
The arguable center piece of Boys State is Steven Garza, a governor candidate born to immigrant parents who faces negative campaigning designed to steamroll his ambition. Despite all the pushback, his resilience provides a solid emotional arc that gives the movie its most powerful passages. At the same time, Garza’s ambitions are offset by those of Ben Feinstein, who begins the film as an underdog figure — a double-amputee eager to find his purpose — before turning into something of a villain, more committed to the win-at-all-costs ethos than anything on moral grounds. As the movie builds out these various characters, it settles into a sprawling series of vignettes, some more engaging than others, and yet some aspect of its portrait can feel incomplete. In meetings between the two parties, the filmmakers witness snippets of the ambivalence from participants less compelled to chase leadership roles (one, for instance, makes a motion to ban Hawaiian pizza) but Boys State never devolves into a Lord of the Flies-like tale of social collapse, nor does it really acknowledge some of the uglier forces at work, hinting at racist sentiments but never calling them out directly.
Still, Boys State looks to diagnose the essence of division by showing the extent that political biases inform the status quo, and how that can lead to campaign strategies devoid of any agenda aside from maintaining power. As Otero concludes, following a messy series of developments, “I don’t think being a fantastic politician is necessarily a compliment.” Garza ends on a more optimistic note, emerging from the experience ready to take his battle into a genuine career, and his story allows the movie to avoid an entirely pessimistic conclusion. Instead, the filmmakers illustrate that governmental power is a fickle thing, prone to exploitation and good will alike, depending on who decides to pursue its offices. That’s either a savvy means of capturing the problem of today’s divisions or a keen illustration of why Americans are perpetually screwed by their leaders. Either way, the film captures an experiment that seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America’s political system itself: personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It’s undeniably inspiring to see all the many young men with bright, engaged minds, and the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments. But it’s also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible — as a game, a competition to be won by any means necessary. Absorbing and often startling, Boys State is a documentary that vividly captures the roots of generational political divisions and the blurred lines that come with decorum and power.
Boys State is available to stream on Apple TV+