Every summer, thousands of civic-minded teenage boys flock to college campuses across the nation for a weeklong crash course in representative government. One such gathering at the University of Texas is the subject of Boys State, a remarkable documentary that dares to suggest that the next generation, despite myriad fears to the contrary, just might be all right.
Sponsored by the American Legion, Boys State events ask talented 17-year-olds to construct a political society from scratch. Participants are divided into Federalists and Nationalists — “Republicans” and “Democrats” would presumably brawl in the quad — and party members hammer out their platforms, hold primaries, and send candidates to a general election. Though teens selected for the Boys State Congress pass bills and conduct mock debates at the state capitol building, the most sought-after office is governor, a resume piece of such glittering allure that no ambitious boy can resist it. By focusing their attention on the race for that prize, husband and wife filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine have captured Boys State at its most ferocious and sincere.
Circling the orbit of the gubernatorial contest in question is a cast of characters who would make any documentarian stand up and cheer. Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-loving amputee who holds forth on the merits of personal responsibility despite having lost his legs to meningitis. Eddy Proietti Conti (aka Eddy P.C.) is a data-spouting Ben Shapiro doppelgänger whom Feinstein guides to an easy Federalist primary win. On the Nationalist side of the aisle, politics are messier and thus even more absorbing. Keeping an uneasy order is party Chairman Rene Otero, who mutters darkly about racism while fending off an impeachment effort. Competing for the Nationalist nomination are Robert MacDougall, a Bitcoin-trading Texas cowboy, and Steven Garza, a Beto Bro who saves his campaign with a legitimately moving appeal to patriotism.
Among the many virtues of Boys State is its willingness to take seriously the idealism of all involved. Earnest lectures from elderly Legionnaires are met with rapt attention, with nary an eye-roll in sight. Policy debates occasionally descend into silliness (as when one “statesman” proposes banishing Prius drivers to Oklahoma), but the assembled boys seem genuinely interested in learning from one another. Though the film employs no narration and uses supertitles only sparingly, a cynical edit could easily have made the project look foolish — or, worse, dangerous. (Are these tomorrow’s leaders?) Instead, Moss and McBaine approach their subject with refreshing neutrality. As a result, the film allows viewers to form their own opinions about the political universe into which they have been thrust.
Unsurprisingly given the movie’s setting, that universe is an overwhelmingly conservative one. Statesmen tinker at the margins of Republican dogma when expediency requires it, but the unmistakable consensus is pro-life, pro-wall, and pro-gun. One consequence is that the two parties’ platforms are not noticeably distinct from one another; candidates must distinguish themselves through backslapping, speechmaking, and charm. A second effect is that progressive office-seekers must hide their lights under bushels lest they alienate the vast majority of voters. As obvious Democrat Rene Otero tells the camera in the heat of his party chairmanship race, “I think running on a campaign of bipartisanship and being as unspecific as possible was a great way for me to integrate myself.” Barack Obama, eat your heart out.
That the early reviews of Boys State would make much of this imbalance was perhaps inevitable given the politics of most American film critics. For Time Out’s Philip de Semlyen, the documentary’s abiding image is “a thousand frat boys chewing over women’s reproductive rights.” For the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, the takeaway is that “if these kids are the future, now would be a good time to buy property in a foreign country.” Though these complaints are not unreasonable if one is a doctrinaire liberal, they are entirely beside the point for everyone else. Boys State works because its emphasis is on character rather than creed. The point of the exercise is not to record what a roomful of teenagers believe but to explore how optimism and acrimony walk hand in hand through the mean streets of American politics.
Such a focus does much to explain Boys State’s insistence, in its most important scenes, on presenting both the sweet and the sour of popular electioneering. Having applauded perfunctorily for gubernatorial candidate Robert MacDougall’s uninspiring bombast, Nationalist voters leap to their feet to cheer Steven Garza’s denouncement of a state secession bid. (“Will we show the world what patriots are made of?”) Yet many of those same voters turn against Garza when Federalist mastermind Ben Feinstein uncovers his past connection to the anti-gun “March for Our Lives” movement. Though a number of critics have suggested that Feinstein is the movie’s villain, the actual film remains resolutely agnostic on the subject. Feinstein, like Garza, is merely one more bright young man. His business, like that of all politicians, is to grapple with the irreconcilable demands of opportunity and honor.
It is this tension, played out on the faces and in the words of the poignantly young, that makes Boys State not only the best documentary but one of the finest movies of the year. Moss and McBaine have made a film that is as honest as it is affecting. And these are very good boys.
Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.