By Elias Savada.
Politics these days are more decisive than ever. A day doesn’t go by without “someone” threatening to bring down the system of government another notch into a seemingly bottomless abyss. Maybe our future leaders will have a better understanding in the years ahead, although I often wonder if tomorrow will ever come soon enough.
Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine might have been thinking those same thoughts when they decided to make Boys State, their fascinating new documentary having its global premiere on Apple TV+ on August 14, bypassing – by fault of Covid-19 – what would have been a small theatrical window via distributor A24. The directors leave a solid marker that their hope for this country down the road centers around numerous youth civics enclaves spread around the country – events sponsored by the American Legion since 1935. This film focuses is on male high school juniors in Texas (there are also Girls State programs) who assembly in an immersive week-long gathering in Austin during June 2018. The thousand or so teenagers are allowed to set up campaigns and run for “state office,” using the fictitious Federalist and Nationalist parties, having been randomly split evenly in half. They follow the adult model fairly closely, as each faction elects their leadership, creates a platform, nominates candidates for 24 cities, which filter into counties, and then statewide primaries and elections. Voting is done completely electronically! No evidence or mention of ballot fraud.
This hands-on approach to democracy and civil discourse has an impressive alumni Who’s Who: Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Wahlberg, among many others.
The film follows mostly a chronological slant, starting with interviews showcasing what it might take to make the cut into the program. It also centers of four of the lads and their involvement with the governor’s race. Double-amputee “It’s my normal” Ben Feinstein, a politics junkie from San Antonio who leans conservative and has more ambition than most of the other attendees. “You play to win” is his mantra. He becomes the Federalist party chair. Steven Garza, a Mexican-American progressive with a lovely, earnest demeanor has a great admiration of Bernie Sanders and Napoleon Bonaparte. His cultural background in a red state makes him an underdog as he takes up the challenge as the Nationalist candidate for governor. He provides an excellent example of an up-and-coming, bring-the-crowd-to-its-feet politician. Robert MacDougall, a former page to Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and pretty-boy jock, plays the race like a game. He’s overly self-confident as he aims for the Governor’s seat, too. Later, he appears humbled, “Being here gave me a deeper appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.” Lastly, popping in at the 20th minute, is René Otero, a “super-isolated” outsider by all stretches of the imagination. He’s recently moved to Texas from Chicago and is one of the few African-Americans here; and that single earring doesn’t sit well with a few local yokels. “I’ve never seen so many white people, ever!” Yet he has marvelous talking skills – he’s a natural orator – and a wickedly wry sense of humor. Despite some push back from some potential race-related obstructionists (calling for his impeachment, no less) within the Nationalists, he becomes the powerful state chair pushing Steven’s political future. Once he sizes up the week’s mostly conservative educational opportunity – understanding it from his own cultural experience – he realizes “This is what every liberal needs,” to find out about the other side.
Make no mistake: these kids are serious, and many have already had some experience in local, state, and federal politics, be it office work or campaigning. Some spout bible verses, others have business cards. There’s an abundance of camaraderie, with dashes of rah-rah exuberance, podcasts, closed-circuit newscasts, Snap Chat and Instagram accounts, and even a few minutes for a talent show. They make their own videos – mostly negative focused. There are even account takedowns.
Some of the contestants are sad excuses for politicians, bored into silliness, which mostly happens when the players are introducing “legislation” in the actual Texas State Capitol chambers (while its normal occupants are on hiatus). Forget taxes, let’s worry about the looming threat of (extraterrestrial) alien invasion. The previous year’s event voted for Texas to secede from the Republic. I’m guessing the adults were sleeping. Some of the boys stumble through inexperience and immaturity, but their sincerity always seems to return, even if it often steers into right-wing beliefs against gun control, abortion, and “illegal” immigration. Most of their time is spent jockeying for signatures, support, and votes, while also examining campaign strategies. It’s all quite impressively captured, thanks to six separate camera teams. Look to be entertained…and surprised.
McBaine and Moss are creative partners and married to each another. She was a producer on several of the films he directed, including The Overnighters, one of the top documentaries of 2014 (after it won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking). Boys State won that festival’s Grand Jury Prize for documentary earlier this year.
Boys State also sports a great soundtrack composed by T. Griffin, pushing its urgency with a rising determination. Politics may be writ small-ish in the film, but here’s a testament to parental nurturing that shows how graciously some youngsters can perform in victory, and others can be tearfully proud in defeat.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).