2020, PG-13, 106 min. Directed by Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss.
REVIEWED By Mike Clark-Madison, Fri., Aug. 14, 2020
My son, a recent college graduate, had never heard of Boys State, but it was a plenty big deal when I was a 16-year-old participant in 1983 in Sacramento. (I was the mayor of our “town” – the pods of 50 or so people you’re assigned to upon arrival, along with your membership in one of the two political parties.) I remember almost nothing about it today, which will doubtlessly also be true of most of the Texas kids captured in this engrossing documentary of the 2018 event. They’re milling around on the Clark Field sport courts, in the shadowy back rows of assemblies led by patriotic Legionnaires, playing in the Boys State band, or in the Texas House and Senate galleries as their elected reps act only a bit more foolish than their real-life counterparts.
For most Boys Staters (there is also a Girls State, and Boys and Girls Nations), even the nerds and news junkies like me, it isn’t an occasion for hard work and sweat, since it is all pretend. This film focuses tightly upon exceptions to the rule – the big stars of Boys State, the candidates for governor and the respective party chairs – and follows their week-long campaigns with both the earnestness and the savvy of the best political documentaries. This Boys State is a red state just like Texas – the American Legion’s objective is immersion in the process, not the policies, and its randomly assigned Nationalists and Federalists make up their own platforms. (My Boys State was more purple, back when California was Reagan Country.) But in the movie, the Nats’ leaders are progressive, and the Feds’ are conservative, which is a stroke of luck that gives the story the bones of a scripted drama, which the filmmakers take firmly in their teeth.
And so we follow key figures, ostensibly, even before they arrive in Austin, with future Nationalist Steven Garza realizing on the bus from Houston that he’s the only Sanders supporter in sight, and future Federalist Ben Feinstein showing off his Reagan action figure. From there plays out a tale informed by the politics of difference – in race, class, and ability – amid a largely undiluted pool of white boys who share their conservative communities’ views on guns and abortion. Or do they? And how much of the campaigning, including a bunch of mudslinging, is truly authentic? (While much of the Boys State experience appears to me to be unchanged, the existence of social media now makes things a lot different.) The filmmakers listen easily and without judgement to these kids as they grapple with the ethics of a political life while negotiating their adolescent insecurities, and that naturalism provides textural relief to what might otherwise come across as an overdetermined narrative. These are just boys, and it is all pretend, but Boys State, like the event itself, delivers some legitimate life lessons.
Boys State is available on Apple TV+ starting Aug. 14. For an interview with directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, read "The State of Boys."