Boys State certainly feels relevant in 2020, being one of the most heated election years in American history. Yet, this documentary might be even more fascinating to watch a couple of decades from now. Numerous students who participated in Boys State, as well as Girls State, went on to have high-ranking government positions. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, former Vice President Dick Cheney, and former President Bill Clinton are just a few examples. Even many alumni who branched off from politics have had fascinating careers, such as Bruce Springsteen, James Gandolfini, and Roger Ebert. Time will only tell if one of the young men in this film becomes commander in chief. In any case, we may see these boys in Washington sooner than later.
Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, Boys State follows a thousand Texan teenagers who have been tasked with establishing a mock government. Some of these 17-year-olds exemplify progressive qualities that could evolve their respective parties, as well as the country as a whole. Others appear rooted in dated mindsets, destined to repeat the same mistakes as other politicians. For every boy who wants to be the next Barack Obama, there’s another who wants to be the next Donald Trump. While not every boy has the skills to lead, most of them have the determination to get voters on their side. In the backhanded world of politics, that’s all that really matters.
While it’s not hard to deduce which boys are republicans and which are democrats, this program operates with two fictional political parties: Federalists and Nationalists. The boys run for various positions, although Governor is the competitive race. If I had a vote in this election, it would be for Steven Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants who looks up to Bernie Sanders and Napoleon Bonaparte. Quiet, awkward, and reserved, Garza is an unlikely politician on the surface. Watching him speak before an audience, however, we can tell that Garza will always be upfront and stand by his morals. Unfortunately, part of being a politician is putting on a show and telling voters what they want to hear. As Garza’s opponent, Robert MacDougall, puts it, “sometimes you can’t win with what you believe in your heart.”
For a film that takes place over just one week, we get to know all the central boys on a personal level. Abiding by the motto “go big or go home,” MacDougall knows how to work a room, even if you don’t agree with his politics. Every politician needs a strong narrative and Ben Feinstein certainly has one, being a double-amputee who had his dreams of joining the military dashed. So, Feinstein instead pursues a career in the FBI or CIA. Of all the boys, René Otero is perhaps the most passionate speaker. Nevertheless, Otero is seen as an outsider, being African American and from Chicago. This makes him susceptible to a campaign full of mudslinging and cheap shots, but René maintains the high ground throughout.
Boys State is a compelling exploration of adolescence, politics, and everything in between. The film will leave its audience wanting to learn more about this program. That said, this subject shouldn’t be limited to one film. As mentioned before, it’d be interesting if this documentary crew caught up with the boys several years from now. Until then, a documentary centered on Girls State would also provide an engaging perspective. With COVID-19 drastically shaking up the political septum, there are a lot of young voices that deserve to be heard.
Boys State debuts Friday, August 14 on Apple TV+.