Boys State


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Boys State
"Perhaps Boys State's greatest achievement is that it finds a way to make all these boys relatable." | Photo: Thorsten Thielow

There are many things about teenagers that are impossible to decipher, but you can always count on one thing: They’re paying attention to how the adults around them behave. The documentary Boys State reveals where their observations are leading them, through the lens of a weeklong mock government camp.

Candidates define their beliefs based on what people what to hear. Opposition research is used to cast doubts on motives. Scandals are manufactured out of procedural disputes. Racist memes appear on social media. It’s not necessarily all that different from a “grown-up” election. And yet there’s also a lot of heart and hope packed inside the drama. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine have made a movie that’s both quietly observational and sharply pointed. It captures multiple dimensions of its subjects, while also examining the challenges and pitfalls of modern politics.

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Since 1935, the American Legion has been holding the titular weeklong civics summer camp. Politically motivated high school kids participate in a full electoral process, starting with establishing party platforms, then primaries before the final vote. (There’s also a Girls State, which would make for an interesting companion documentary.) The opening titles cut between a collection of smarmy kids in admissions interviews and pictures of some of the program’s most famous alumni, including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Corey Booker, Rush Limbaugh and Samuel Alito.

Famous as its past participants may be, the camp itself is something of a curiosity – even if you look past the antiquated gender segregation. (It seems like it’d be a good thing to make these teenage boys win over female votes as well – especially the guy who gives a speech about his masculinity being infringed.) At the start of camp, the participants are separated into two “parties” – the Federalists and the Nationalists. Part of what’s weird is that these parties have no ideological base, regardless of what their names imply. Each kid has to seek approval from the random group of kids they’ve been grouped with, and try to create a compelling party platform. Once the intra-party problems are solved, a general election is held.

The previous year’s Boys State made news when the government voted for Texas to secede from the United States. When someone says it started as a joke and then snowballed, it’s hard not to think of some real-world adult policies that started the same way.

Given the camp’s format, you could easily end up with two very similar party platforms, but fate conspired to the film’s advantage. Two leaders emerge in the Nationalist party: gubernatorial candidate Steven and party chair René. Steven is Latino and René is black, and they’re both left-leaning. So for them to earn votes from a largely white and conservative group of boys is truly impressive. Meanwhile, Steven’s primary opponent Robert is very charismatic and outgoing, but struggles to find his voice amidst the quest to please everyone. In the Federalist Party’s corner, we meet Ben, a smart and talented die-hard Reagan conservative who lost his legs when he was three years old.

Since there’s no rhyme or reason to party membership, you end up with junior politicians who are eager to please as many people as possible, but also know that they’re in a majority conservative group. So while Steven and René both take a centrist approach, Ben recognises he can hit them by questioning their commitment to big Texas issues like gun rights.

The film presents the drama of the camp through footage of the event and interviews with the participants, giving the feeling that we’re witnessing the election drama unfold with objective precision. The filmmakers said they had 300 hours of footage to work with, and the final product comes in at 109 minutes – just enough to propel the political drama while also getting to know the personality and feelings of the kids involved.

While the aesthetic feels objective, the directors and editor Jeff Seymann Gilbert clearly set out to make a compelling narrative, and Steven fits comfortably as the hero in its structure. The Sundance 2020 audience was definitely rooting for him – not just because his politics were a closer match to the festival’s left-wing crowd, but because everyone loves an underdog. Going into a conservative state’s camp – segregated into only members of the more conservative sex – and trying to become governor takes serious nerve. That he does it with quiet humility and Obama-esque inspirational rhetoric about working together only makes him more likable.

But perhaps Boys State's greatest achievement is that it finds a way to make all these boys relatable. Even the ones who make embrace sleazy strategies or project fake slick personas are ultimately looking for acceptance and success in a brutal environment. Whether they can create a shift in the process, away from the often toxic path they’re following, however, is up for debate.

Reviewed on: 18 Jan 2021
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Boys State packshot
In an unusual experiment, a thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.

Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss

Year: 2020

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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