Seeing the Future of Politics in SXSW Documentary Boys State
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine look at the state of boys
Do you remember when Texas voted to secede from the United States of America? It was June 15, 2017, and both the House and the Senate decided to sever ties with the Union and write a new constitution for their independent nation.
If you don't recall that, or are wondering why it didn't immediately get struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, it's because it didn't count because the lawmakers were all teenagers, attendees at Texas Boys State. If you don't know what Boys State is, maybe you should because it's a training ground for future leaders. Founded by the American Legion in 1935 as a response to the growth of kids' camps run by political groups, they became a combination of summer destination and debate class and have spread to every state (bar Hawaii). Most are just talking shops and résumé builders, but the Texas event made national headlines, coming as it did on the bizarre secession debate that had roiled real-world Texas politics earlier in the decade.
When documentarian Jesse Moss read about the vote in the Washington Post, he was fascinated. "I wondered, what would they do the following year? Would they engage in civil war, or would they reconcile?"
So he and fellow director/producer Amanda McBaine headed to the 2018 gathering at the Texas Capitol in Austin, and filmed their fly-on-the-wall documentary Boys State. It debuted at Sundance this year, where it took home the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize and was supposed to come back to Austin for SXSW. Unfortunately, that homecoming was canceled, along with the entire festival, as part of the coronavirus pandemic response: "We were looking forward to that screening," said Moss, who at least had the comfort of winning the festival's Louis Black Lone Star Award Special Jury Recognition for Documentary in absentia. "We got that little belt buckle plaque, which I've coveted forever."
It wasn't just that the filmmakers wanted to see what happened next in Texas. Moss explained, "It was the year after Trump had been elected, and we, like many people, were struggling to process the intractable political division of America, and in that vote of Texas Boys State we saw a kernel, or maybe a prism to look at this question." Or maybe, he suggested, it's a crystal ball into how political opinions and identities are formed in young minds. Moss said, "People were getting together in a room and talking to each other about different politics and disagreeing or agreeing. But that conversation seems like a rare space in America."
Yet beyond the fallout of the 2017 vote, the Texas iteration of Boys State was particularly appealing to the filmmakers. McBaine said, "The Texas program is very big, and the politics of Texas – it's not blue, it's not red, it's purple. I think that space was particularly interesting as we were investigating polarization, and how that polarization is affecting kids."
Plus, Moss added, it was an opportunity to spend some time in Austin, which they have visited regularly since they brought their earlier documentary, Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story, to SXSW 2003. He said, "I would never pass [Austin] up, especially in June when it's 110 degrees."
At the same time as Boys State is running, there is also a Girls State. However, McBaine explained that they decided early in development not to include that in the film "because then you run the risk of a comparison situation, which I don't think is a worthwhile project, frankly." That doesn't mean they find it any less intriguing and McBaine said that if it had been Texas Girls State that cast that secession vote, then they would have made Girls State instead – or rather, first. "The minute these guys get back up and running in real life, we want to make the Girls State film – I don't want to call it a sequel but a sibling – because I think there's more people to meet."
Narrowing down to just Boys State was the beginning of finding a focal point for the film. McCabe and Moss' last documentary feature, 2014's The Overnighters, was an immersive longitudinal study of a whole community – the oil town of Williston, N.D., and its divide between the itinerant and often homeless newcomers seeking a job, and the long-term residents seeing their town stressed to shatter point by a population explosion. Yet Texas Boys State only lasts a week, and the filmmakers had to prepare to find their story. McBaine said, "We had three months-ish to whittle that pool down from a thousand to four. That's a needle-in-the-haystack project, and it involved a lot of phone calls and traveling around Texas and meeting a lot of people who were all impressive in various ways." However, while the process was long, "it was very evident very quickly that we had found them. There they were, right in front of us, and it's not a totally rational moment when you recognize that other and you see them for all the things that we're looking for – the diversity that we mentioned, the charisma, that possibility that they would do well in this program. This is a verité film so if we did pick a group of kids who didn't transcend in any way or didn't go for broke, we wouldn't have had a film."
Finally, the filmmakers found four diverse figures to follow: Steven Garza, the son of migrants and a budding progressive activist; Robert MacDougall, a gung-ho kid from Austin with ambitions of attending West Point; Ben Feinstein from San Antonio, who aspires to join the CIA; and Rene Otero, a recent transplant from Chicago to Texas and one of the few Black attendees. Yet there's a certain homogeneity to them: aspirational to ambitious, well-educated, middle- to upper-middle class. For Moss, what really binds them is their shared confusion about their futures. "They're trying things on," he said. "They may be more sophisticated about the tools, more sophisticated than we were at the same age, but they're trying on their adolescent teenage identities. ... Sure, some people are preternaturally fixed and will never change. Good for them. But the rest of them are still trying to figure it out." That confusion is something with which the filmmakers could associate.
What makes Moss optimistic about the program is not the politics – nor does he see it as primarily about political ambition but rather nascent civic engagement. After all, Dick Cheney and Mike Huckabee may be Boys State alums but so were Bruce Springsteen, Roger Ebert, and Michael Jordan. Two years after their Austin trip, the central figures in the film are all taking widely divergent paths. "They're finding ways to be active in different ways," said Moss, and for him that's what's important. "It's hopeful to see young people, both at Boys State and around the world, throwing themselves into political life, protest movements, and becoming voices of moral leadership, because the adults have abdicated some of that leadership."
For McBaine it proves the value of Boys State as a dry run for the future that all the young attendees will face. She said, "They are the ones inheriting climate change, they're inheriting gun violence, they're inheriting a certain world that they're going to live through. That will be their adult state."
Boys State arrives on Apple TV on Aug. 14. See our full review at austinchronicle.com/screens.