An eye-opening sneak-peak at the political leadership of the next generation, the documentary, “Boys State,” alternates between several different takeaways during its 105-minute run-time. Indeed, it’s hard to know if one should be optimistic about the future of U.S. politics based on what’s presented here, for at times the young men featured offer up a sense of hope, discouragement, and even a resigned acceptance of the sorry status quo. What is obvious, however, is that these teenagers are unquestionably a reflection of the current state of politics in the United States, tangled up as it is in a cloudy cesspool of half-truths, wedge issues, party talking points, dirty tricks, and an entrenched winner-loser binary.
“Boys State” is the name of the documentary as well as the annual American Legion-sponsored event of the same name, which brings over a thousand young men together in each state (except Hawaii) to participate in a mock government exercise. The boys, mostly high school Juniors or Seniors, are randomly broken into Federalist and Nationalist parties and must author platforms, electing various officers to positions like party chair, attorney general, and the highest seat: governor.
Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss travel to Texas for the 2018 Boys State conference, and track each stage of the program, from signature gathering for the primaries, election of party officials, the debates, and the eventual election of a government consisting of both Federalist and Nationalist representatives. The documentary has a lot to sift through and sets its sights on four young men as guides through the event. These four are well-chosen, too, as they represent different degrees of idealism (Rene Otero and Steven Garza), empty pragmatism (Rob McDougall), and ruthless party politicking (Ben Feinstein).
Watching these young men swim through a sea of confused testosterone and big dick swagger is enlightening, for early on most seem more concerned about projecting a sense of virile masculinity than engaging in reasoned political discourse. At this early stage, the loudest, most aggressive voice in the room tends to get the most attention, yet the free thinkers of the bunch begin to set themselves apart once the shine of machismo begins to fade. The Federalists and Nationalists both see leaders emerge that appeal, not to the raw, masculine energy of the masses, but the reasoned, pragmatic traits found in the handful that have focus and leadership pouring out of them. This leadership takes different forms, however, for on the Federalist side it manifests itself in a cold-hearted, propaganda-heavy campaign of opposition politics, while the Nationalists present an optimistic, unifying message appealing to a sense of purpose and action.
For those who perceive themselves as trapped within a liberal bubble, it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend how a person could come to identify with a political ideology rooted in (at best) contradictory and/or (at worst) nonsensical policies. “Boys State” provides one possible answer, showing how a person’s lust for victory and power can act as the buttress upon which all manner of depravity rests its justification. The young men in this documentary represent the soul of a nation that is watered down with sound bites and talking points and is fighting between an acceptance or refusal of this noise. Candidates and parties are positioned against wedge issues that define sides into us versus them camps, and as “Boys State” heads to the general election, it becomes a question of whether these kids will fall into the same ideological trap as their parents.
Without giving away the ending, “Boys State” concludes by offering up both hope and despair. If one holds out hope that the next generation will use the infinite stores of information out there to make better, well-informed decisions based on reason rather than tribal loyalty, then there’s plenty to be depressed about. Ben and the Federalists don’t stand for anything except winning at all costs, and they find scores of willing allies in an ugly campaign that speaks to their character (or lack thereof). Yet in Rene and Steven’s courage and ability to sway the opinions of hundreds of young conservative Texans, there’s hope as well: hope that a message of unity and compromise can rise above the static of opposition politics.
Although “Boys State” provides its four leads some talking-head reflection moments, the documentary is largely verité and linear. This gives the project a decidedly honest and organic feeling, but yet it does slow it down at times, depriving it of momentum. And while it would have been nice to have an outside voice question some of these young white men in real-time, especially about their pro-life and anti-police reform stances (their lack of self-awareness is astonishing), this distance keeps the documentary honest in a way. In the end, it’s messy and complicated and points towards an uncertain future, but then again, that’s America in 2020. [B]