Director: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Runtime: 109 min
The interests of a typical 17-year-old boy are, perhaps, fairly predictable: cars. Girls. Sports. Maybe his grade-point average and college applications are wedged in there somewhere, too.
You won’t find that many interested in, say, politics. Not in these divisive days, especially.
Unless, of course, you’re at Boys State.
The American Legion sponsors Boys State (and Girls State) programs across the country, inviting only a given state’s best, brightest and, naturally, most political teens to engage in a week of politicking and legislating. It’s designed to teach participants more about the intricate practicalities of the American political system, but it doesn’t always go as planned. In 2017, participants of the Texas Boys State program voted to secede.
This Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine documentary takes us back to the heart of Texas a couple years later and introduces us to some of the Lone Star State’s most promising young politicians. We meet Ben, a self-admitted “politics junkie” with two missing legs, a deformed hand and an action figure of Ronald Reagan. There’s Robert, a back-slapping All American-type who is applying for just one college: West Point. Rene is one of the only minorities at Boys State: “I”ve never seen so many white people ever,” he marvels when he first arrives.
And then there’s Steven Garza, a quiet, sincere kid from Houston who wants to run for president at Boys State. But winning won’t be easy. “I’m a progressive person and I’m in a roomful of mostly conservative people,” he sighs. He’ll need to tread carefully.
That, Boys State suggests, is partly what politics is all about: To trumpet some of your ideals while downplaying others, to cater to the voting masses without abandoning principles, to dive into the political muck while trying to stay as clean as you can. The doc gives us a frighteningly accurate microcosm of what real American politics look like today—complete with political shenanigans, scandal and even a wee bit of backstabbing.
And yet, somehow, you walk away from this film feeling curiously hopeful. Most of the kids we meet are pretty bright. And you get the sense that politics, for better and for worse, will fall into capable hands.
American politics has never been just about well-intended idealists speaking their minds. Ever since Thomas Jefferson and John Adams squared off in one of the dirtiest, most divisive political campaigns in history more than two centuries ago, our system has been as much about the grease and grime of our political engine as the parts that make it go.
But somehow, so far, it still works. It works for America. And it works for the boys at Boys State, too. In the midst of the political game, some genuine idealism leaks out. Lofty thoughts are voiced. Compromises are cobbled together. Bonds are forged. Careers are even sparked. As much as spin and vitriol have their day and their sway here, ideas—voiced by young, eloquent spokesmen—still have power. Ideas can still move us toward the better angels of our nature.
Boys State is a moving and riveting documentary – as gripping in its own way as any fictional drama I’ve seen during this COVID-impacted year. This is one you shouldn’t miss.
Boys State releases in select theaters July 31, and on AppleTV+ August 14.
Written by Paul Asay