[This is a repost of our review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Boys State is out today on AppleTV+]
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’m too obsessed with politics. I tweet more about national politics than I do about movies, which makes my Twitter feed a real disappointment. As the documentary Boys State started to unfold, I wondered why I was watching a movie that’s a parable about national politics when I clearly consume too much of that in my media diet as it stands. And yet by the end, Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine’s film had completely won me over as it’s able to cut through various issues and personalities to explore that the real conflict in our politics is not so much left-vs-right, but between people who see politics as a place for public service and governance and those who simply want to win. Through its four endearing lead figures, Boys State manages to be a hilarious and infuriating look at American politics.
The Boys State program has been instituted by the American Legion since 1935 and past participants have included Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, and Rush Limbaugh. Similar to a mock United Nations, the Texas Boys State is a mock United States where 1200 teenage boys (it should be noted there’s also a Girls State program) run for different positions in government and carry out different functions like passing legislation. However, the big title is the run for Governor. There are two parties–the Nationalists and the Federalists–and the boys are randomly assigned to a party. It’s then up to the boys to self-govern, come up with a platform, elect a candidate for governor, and then at the end of the week try to win a general election. The documentary focuses on four boys in particular: political junkie and conservative Ben; the liberal and politically active Steven; the charismatic and charming Robert; and the experienced and eloquent René. From there, we see how the boys campaign and which of them believe in politics as service and which of them see it as a bloodsport.
What’s fascinating about Boys State is that the camp experience isn’t about education on governance or policy. It’s politics camp, and so it becomes about how these teenagers perceive politics. Unsurprisingly, they enact what they see in the world. Ben wasn’t born a ruthless political operator, but the Federalists are his team and he wants his team to win. He has no compunction about sowing discord among the Nationalists, and he doesn’t seem particularly concerned about the platform of his party. To be fair, Ben didn’t structure the game this way, but the way he chooses to play it is darkly comic.
You can’t help but contrast Ben and especially the outgoing Robert against Steven. Steven sees politics as a form of public service. Yes, he’s trying to “win” the governorship of the Nationalist party like Robert, but Steven seems genuinely invested in his fellow party members and thoughtfully composes speeches rather than just saying whatever he thinks a bunch of 17-year-old boys from Texas want to hear. When his opponents try to smear him as soft on guns rights, Steven doesn’t run from his convictions and instead he works to explain his position.
Look at guys like Ben and Robert and you might think the future of American politics is bleak. Look at Steven and René and you’ll feel hopeful about the future. The truth presented by Boys State is that the future belongs to both factions: the cynics and the idealists, and I think that’s a worthwhile insight. Too often, we think our politics belong solely to the cynical, but I found a bunch of guys getting together to hash out political ideas oddly inspiring even if the structure of the camp seems to reinforce existing concepts of politics as a game rather than something that affects the lives of everyday people.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the masculinity of it all. As you’d expect, a bunch of boys from Texas show no problems being pro-life in their candidacies, especially when they know there are no women to push back on what happens to their bodies. And yet, the environment (at least as depicted) was nowhere near as toxic as I expected it to be. In fact, it was kind of refreshing to see so many young men be emotionally available and form such close bonds with their fellow participants. You can see these young men cry and hug and no one is saying, “No homo.”
However, it would be unwise to make a grand proclamation about the future based on a week with a group of politically minded boys from a single state. Instead, Boys State is best viewed as an entertaining and maddening reflection of our current politics and what can be gleaned beyond the left-right divide. In an environment where most of the participants share the same views on the issues, factions will break down along how participants view the nature of governance. The results may be more encouraging than Lord of the Flies, but I’m not sure by how much.