Film Review: “Boys State” Offers Powerful Look at the Political Process
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 13th, 2020
Boys State (Amanda McBaine/Jesse Moss, 2020) 4 out of 4 stars.
Every year, since the 1930s, the American Legion, a respected veterans group incorporated in 1919, has organized a series of single-sex camps for both boys and girls, called, appropriately enough, Boys State and Girls State. During these week-long gatherings, the assembled teenagers are assigned one of two different fictional political parties – The Federalists and the Nationalists – and then must create platforms and run for legislative and executive offices (the highest being that of governor). In 2018, wife-and-husband filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss followed the goings-on at the Texas camp, held on the University of Texas campus in the capital of Austin. Firmly embedded in the lives of their subjects during the manic intensity of the seven days, they emerged with a profoundly intimate documentary look at how this hands-on program trains the leaders of tomorrow. Filled with surprising twists and turns, as well as with revelatory interviews with its subjects, Boys State is a model of observational cinema that offers insights into our larger world, as well.
There are four main characters, with a fifth added before the end. Three become part of the Nationalist Party, and two of the Federalists. It is in the former that the early drama heats up, and fairly quickly, as Robert and Steven, the one white, the other Latinx, vie for their party’s gubernatorial nomination. René, African American and originally from Chicago, is the third Nationalist, and becomes party chairman, despite the overwhelming lack of diversity in the group and its conservative bent, with raucous calls for anti-abortion and pro-gun language to enter the official platform. Still, these young men may not, in fact, be as committed to certain causes as we initially think, and part of the immense delight of the film is how that which we take to be a foregone conclusion may not be so far gone.
Over at the Federalists, the Machiavellian Ben, who lives and breathes politics the way most of his peers do sports (he has two artificial limbs, which helps explain his early proclivities away from the same old same old), becomes their chairman, and finds in Eddy a fine surrogate to push towards the highest office. Where René waxes idealistic over on his side of things, Ben is not afraid to play hardball. Who will come out on top? Remember, this is all just fantasy, though given everyone’s emotional investment in the outcomes, it feels very real.
Beyond the shots of civic discourse and political machinations in action, McBaine and Moss offer reflective moments with their protagonists, as well, filming them all on a couch in an old dorm room, one at a time. The boys sit, they recline, they bounce (though less and less as the week goes on), pouring out their hearts over how they think it will all end. René and Ben really don’t want to see what happened in 2017 repeat itself, when Boys State voted to secede from the United States; no such frivolity for them. But they do wrestle with the validity of their methods and whether the ends justify the means.
Ultimately, the stakes might seem tiny, since everyone leaves after the week, but their impact looms large, and lessons learned at Boys State will not stay in Boys State, but follow the boys ever after. Thanks to this marvelous documentary, we learn quite a lot, too, about human nature and how individuals fare in group settings. Next up, one can hope, is a look at Girls State, and then maybe one day a unification of the two programs. Until then, enjoy the film we have.