Arts movie review

That’s politics, I guess

A Texas government camp for teenage boys actually provides a bit of insight into our political troubles and triumphs

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Robert MacDougall and Steven Garza are two of thousands of boys attending Boys State, a high school program that provides intriguing insight into American politics as a whole.
Courtesy of A24/Apple

Boys State
Directed by Amanda McBaine and Thomas Moss
Rated PG-13
Streaming on Apple TV Plus

Boys State is the name of a week-long camp run by the American Legion, a U.S. war veterans organization, for the future politicians of our nation: teenage boys. It is as entertaining and borderline satirical as it sounds. Yet believe it or not, Boys State is a prestigious program held every summer in all fifty states, attended in the past by the likes of Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Cory Booker. Although the trailers for the film played up its novelty, the documentary itself is less absurd but still a youthful, unique look at politics and nationalism.

Named after the camp, Boys State is directed by Amanda McBaine and Thomas Moss and focuses on the unruly Texas division, infamous for having voted to secede from the United States in a previous year. The film is charged with teenage, masculine, and competitive energy right from the beginning, with structured interviews conducted by stern military officials. The teens who are accepted pack up their bags for a week, board buses, and find themselves at the convention building. There, they line up, get their red lanyards, and are randomly assigned to one of two political parties: Federalists and Nationalists. Within their groups, the boys then have to draft their party platforms, elect party specific positions, and choose a candidate to run for the highest chair at Boys State: governor. In this world, politicians’ rules apply — sabotaging opponents and sacrificing personal beliefs are just part of the game.

The nature of the camp, pitting many loud, opinionated young men against each other, is an automatic source of momentum and drama. The film benefits from how inherently captivating this premise is, and dramatic story arcs naturally emerge. Patriotic military band anthems playing in the background exaggerate the sense of nationalism and grandeur in this fictional, alternate-world government. The film uses all of this energy to build up to questions of what it means to be American and what unity means in the United States. 

To get to the heart of political divisions that have always plagued the country, the directors choose to primarily follow four voices, focusing on what diversity might look like in an overwhelmingly white, conservative environment. Ben, a self-proclaimed “politics junkie,” champions the idea of working hard for success, based on his own experiences as an amputee. Rene is a fiery, gifted speaker who moved to Texas from Chicago and is learning how to adjust as a black liberal. Steven is a quieter teen but has strong aspirations to serve and make an impact, motivated by politicians like Bernie Sanders and by his family, specifically his mother who was once undocumented. There is also Robert, at first glance a classic charismatic white teenage boy, who swiftly gains popularity but plays politics in unexpected ways. 

Their personalities develop more deeply as the film follows the boys through all different contexts during their hectic week: high-stakes elections and casual banter; when they are all together and when they are alone. The resulting accumulation of footage is dynamic and personal, with varied shots and insightful moments. The greatest accomplishment is that the film maintains its observational lens without hindering or intruding on natural proceedings and relationships. Although the teens only directly acknowledge the camera in the film during the interspersed interviews, there is a sense of trust between the subjects and the filmmakers that makes the film feel even more real. 

Due to the nature of the observational filming, what is captured is an unplanned reflection of real-life events. The story that emerges in this film, as in all documentaries, comes from the editing. Boys State creates a strong sense of location and context through shots of the military band playing, the white shirts and red lanyards gathered around cafeteria tables, auditoriums filled with seas of people, and teens scrolling through and posting on apps like Instagram. There is a sense of maturity and youth, of kids trying to be adults, and of compromise and deceit. The four main subjects, despite their ideological and personality differences, share the experience of having to adjust one’s own values in order to gain the favor of the majority. At this Texas Boys State, anti-abortion, pro-gun, and extreme nationalism are the favored opinions by default. The difference then between the Federalists and Nationalists is mainly arbitrary and really comes down to the candidate chosen to represent each party. This fabricated division drives the boys to attack their peers and sometimes friends in dirty, manipulative ways, losing sight of anything else besides winning.

It is hard to watch some of the nastier, bigoted behaviors that emerge, but the film does not dwell on these darker and undeniably present issues. Instead, Boys State is incredibly hopeful, showing that even a teen whose political idol is a democratic socialist can find powerful common ground with the conservative majority. This subject, Steven, is heavily spotlighted as he races for the position of Governor as a Nationalist, first running against his fellow Nationalist Robert in the primaries. Although clips of interviews with Steven are sparse, his character and growth come across strongly. We see him early on, awkwardly hovering around groups of other boys, seeming uncertain about who to talk to, and later, surrounded by applause and hollers from boys who genuinely believe in his vision for America. Even though he has to sacrifice many of his more liberal positions during the camp to gain favor, Steven’s success lies in that he understands what makes people proud to be American. His own struggles as a low-income, minority student and his efforts to volunteer on campaigns and be politically active all accumulate in his powerful message of national pride. Out of the four boys, Steven has the clearest motivation for becoming a politician: serving others. While it is easy to describe politicians as dirty, twisted, untruthful manipulators (and many of the boys hold this opinion), the film reminds us that public office is ultimately a way to help the people. 

It is refreshing to see minority opinions and voices being highlighted, but as a result, the film fails to directly acknowledge how the majority can so easily squash the potential for a new direction. While polarized views, racism, and unwillingness to compromise are all mentioned in the film, the narrative of hope and unity overpowers these obvious problems. So, while getting to know the four main boys is rewarding, the questions still remain: Why? Why is change so difficult when unity is apparently possible? Why is fear a more powerful motivator than love? And how does this camp translate into the real American political landscape? Boys State inspires with hopeful, fresh voices, but it sacrifices an explanation of the reality of change.

Perhaps it is naïve to think that high schoolers in Texas could solve the largest questions our nation is facing today, but Boys State shows that they may not be too far from it. In a world where politics often feels hopeless, this documentary’s ironic pitfall is that it is too focused on a heroic storyline. But it is true that in these young men, future heroes exist. A great leader can be someone who has the unsuppressable urge to help their country, which we see in Ben, Rene, Steven, and Robert, despite their ideological differences. They are part of the future of politics, and, as Steven says, proof to the adults in Washington that finding common ground on difficult issues is possible. In the film, Robert states that you cannot win with a minority opinion or with “what you believe in your heart.” He shrugs and simply accepts this as a fact of politics, as many people do. While Boys State also acknowledges the way politics is played, by the end of the film, you can’t help but hope that there is some truth in the game as well.