Review: In the captivating, sobering ‘Boys State,’ teenage politicians take the stage
In “Boys State,” an electrifying documentary about the mock-government program for high schoolers, the act of governance itself sometimes devolves into outright mockery. What else would you expect when, to quote one amused participant, “you put a bunch of 17-year-old boys in a room together”? You get campaign speeches overflowing with ego and testosterone. You get legislative sessions jammed with nonsensical proposals, like a $15-billion infrastructure bill to combat an alien invasion. When a rare voice of sanity finally takes the floor and asks, “Guys, is Boys State a joke?,” you will find yourself pondering the same question.
Fortunately, the directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) have a satisfyingly nuanced answer in mind. If Boys State is a joke, that may well be a sign of its curious integrity — its spot-on approximation of a real-world political system beset by corruption, inefficiency and the whims of small-minded men. At least no catastrophic policies are enacted in Boys State, and even the lousiest players can claim youthful naiveté and inexperience as an excuse. The most promising ones, for their part, seem to take this intensely competitive game quite seriously. Some of them even emerge better for it, if also a bit sadder, wiser and more cynical about what they can accomplish in a fundamentally broken system.
You may feel something similar after watching “Boys State,” which won the top prize for U.S. documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and begins streaming this week on Apple TV+. Filmed during the weeklong Texas Boys State event in June 2018 by a nimble camera crew (led by the director of photography, Thorsten Thielow), the movie comes at you like an Armando Iannucci remake of “Dazed and Confused” — it’s a comedy, a heartbreaker and, above all, a twisty and suspenseful piece of political theater. Its rough-and-tumble snapshot of American youth in action is somehow both troubling and exhilarating. And its insights into the compromises and failures of a two-party system (real or fake) are all the more persuasive for having been stumbled upon by accident.
Boys State was founded by the American Legion in 1935; its sister program, Girls State, was founded by the American Legion Auxiliary in 1937 (and clearly demands a McBaine-Moss sequel). Both programs have long served as incubators for the leaders of tomorrow. Early on in the film, we learn that Boys State’s esteemed alums include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Samuel A. Alito and Cory Booker. That primes us to wonder who the standouts will be among the 1,200 or so high-school juniors we see descending in a sea of white T-shirts on the University of Texas at Austin campus.
There, they are randomly divided into two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry a lot of baggage, but they confer no specific agenda here: Each party must figure out its own platform, hold a primary and nominate candidates who will go head-to-head in a general election. Signatures are collected, slogans are mulled, legislation is passed, procedures are followed (and ignored), insults are exchanged and Instagram smear campaigns are launched. And from the wreckage of this distinctly modern yet utterly timeless democratic experiment, a few remarkable individuals arise and linger, lending shape and dramatic force to the film’s sweeping panorama.
The human tendency to favor personalities over policies — to assess candidates based primarily on their eloquence, charisma or lack thereof — is a natural flaw of our political system. “Boys State,” itself organized around names and faces rather than issues and procedures, both reproduces that flaw and ingeniously exploits it. In whittling down hours of footage with their expert editor, Jeff Gilbert, McBaine and Moss appear to have been shrewd, perceptive and exceptionally fortunate in their choice of subjects. Maybe it was pure intuition: When the film lands on someone as commandingly smart as René Otero, a teenager with a seasoned politician’s command of rhetoric, you can’t imagine the camera looking anywhere else.
As a liberal Black youth who hails originally from Chicago, René knows he sticks out in this predominantly white, conservative enclave. His challenge is to calibrate the precise ratio of conflict to comfort he wants to foster among his pro-life, pro-gun colleagues. It isn’t the easiest needle to thread: Early on, René delivers a stirring call for bipartisan unity that catapults him into the high-ranking position of the Nationalists’ state party chair. But he’s soon drawing ire from party members for brushing off their demands, challenging their views and, it’s credibly suggested, inflaming the racism of a nasty few.
The Federalists’ equally fascinating party chair, Ben Feinstein, hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A staunch conservative (with a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it), Ben loathes what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability; on the last point, he speaks from his personal perspective as a double amputee. At the same time, he proves particularly adept at sowing his own kind of division. Armed with a precocious mastery of doublespeak, he makes unapologetic and highly effective use of smear tactics as the election gets under way.
What unites René and Ben, beyond their skill and ambition, is a keen understanding that going with the flow and falling in line with the majority can have its drawbacks. Someone who learns this lesson the hard way is Robert MacDougall, who initially comes off as a gregarious jock (think Chris Klein in “Election”) with a conventional party-line path to becoming the Nationalists’ candidate for governor, the highest elected office in Boys State. But Robert is more thoughtful and conflicted than he lets on, and he reveals more of himself than he may realize when he utters the film’s most emblematic line: “Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win. That’s politics.”
Indeed it is. Which brings us to the movie’s most memorable figure, a young man named Steven Garza, whose every soulful word stands as a gentle, forceful corrective to Robert’s pragmatism. Like René, Steven is a progressive person of color: Born to a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant, he’s canvassed for Bernie Sanders and led a March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. All of which comes fascinatingly into play when Steven unexpectedly becomes a major player in the gubernatorial race — a development that turns “Boys State” into a multifaceted inquiry into how race and privilege, polarizing positions and dishonest tactics can intersect in any public arena.
Is Steven a first-rate politician or a guileless underdog? The brilliance of “Boys State” is that it recognizes the two are hardly mutually exclusive. When Steven takes the podium, his words land with a gravity and emotional force that eludes the vast majority of his fellow statesmen. You hear a lot of humility and wisdom in that voice; you also hear an unfashionably sincere belief that politics — or, as he calls it, public service — truly can change lives for the better. In these moments, the roughhousing and the nonsense dissipate; Steven has no time or use for swaggering foolishness. He has signatures to collect, policies to discuss and hearts and minds to conquer, yours very much included.
Rating: PG-13, for some strong language, and thematic elements
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: Available Aug. 14 on Apple TV+
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