“[Political parties] are likely to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” George Washington
Since 1935, the American Legion has sponsored a national civics program for students in between their junior and senior years of high school. In a one week time period, the kids are assigned to one of two fictional parties, Federalists and Nationalists. They must create a party platform and run campaigns for various political and elected offices, the highest being one Governor. After male Texas teenagers (there is a separate program for girls) in 2017 drew national headlines when their week ended with a vote to secede from the country, married filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (“The Overnighters”) traveled to Austin to document the 2018 edition of “Boys State.”
Laura's Review: A
What a riveting piece of work this Sundance Grand Jury prize winner is, a microcosm of the state of our divided nation as displayed by seventeen year-old boys, predominantly white and conservative, who are at turns impressive, infuriating, silly, mean-spirited, compassionate and frequently surprising. While it is enraging to listen to teenaged boys profess their anti-abortion views without a care for the rights of women, we will hear one of that sentiment’s loudest proponents secretly confess that he is pro-choice but politics demand he ‘play the game’ otherwise (the filmmakers employ the ‘interview room’ technique of many a reality TV show).
Moss and McBaine interviewed many of the 1,100 participants ahead of time in order to find the most interesting subjects to follow and their four main protagonists are as diverse a bunch as former Boys State players Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Corey Booker and Rush Limbaugh. Liberals will flinch at the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ rhetoric of Ronald Reagan loving, self-professed ‘political junkie’ Ben Feinstein, a double amputee, while still recognizing his intelligence and drive (it saddens us later to see him lead a 'Dominate!' chant). The quiet son of Mexican immigrants, Steven Garza confounds us with his love of both Bernie Sanders and Napoleon and amazes us with an eloquent call for equality and unity that makes him a strong gubernatorial contender. Robert MacDougall is the type of well off, good looking football star who is so obviously advantaged he at first seems obnoxious, but who has hidden depths. René Otero, Black, gay and recently moved from Chicago, is one of the group’s biggest outliers yet his talented and passionate public speaking finds him made Chairman of the Nationalist Party – and also the target of impeachment talk.
The group is initially rowdy with testosterone fueled, fists-in-the-air declarations of love for guns and general goofing around, but as the week progresses the kids get more serious and we can see every aspect of our current political system come into play. Those who have become cynical about current events may find flickers of hope in witnessing how well constructed appeals for the common good can still influence, despite political games, including racist tactics, being played on the sidelines. There is also a realization that no one can win by only appealing to their own party’s platform, René using the example of a plane needing both its right and left wings in order to fly. When Garza stirs a large crowd right after the cocksure MacDougall thinks he’s nailed it we see a stunned look on his face, the look of privilege denied. What he confides afterwards is astounding, even if he fails to follow through. Both MacDougall and Otero will offer surprising insights into their experience.
With well over 1,000 hours of footage, editor Jeff Seymann Gilbert had his work cut out for him, but the filmmakers have unearthed a clear yet complex picture, building to their climax while following party and individual story lines. “Boys State” doesn’t deny that politics can be a dirty and depressing business, but these boys’ understanding that more can be accomplished by listening to other side suggests that as far as our future is concerned, the kids may be alright.
Robin's Review: B
Since 1937, the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliaries have sponsored leadership and citizenship programs for high school junior boys and girls from across each state in the US. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine focus on the annual event in the 2018 gathering of the Texas “Boys State.”
The annual Texas gathering of 1000 boys from across the state allows the participants to come together, forming two political parties – the Nationalists and the Federalists. From there, they campaign for highest elected offices, including Governor and Lieutenant-Governor. The intent is to train our future politicians and, hopefully, statesmen in the machinations of government and the democratic process.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous as I watched what appeared to be primarily white Texan teenage boys gathered together to form a mock government, create bills and pass laws. I emphasize the “white” since that is the color of those who have governed this country – many of whom participated in the Boys State program - for two and a half centuries and I feared the program, of which I then knew nothing, was to foment white supremacy; or, the status quo.
Then, the filmmakers surprised me with the diverse assortment of representatives that “Boys State” follows during the course of the week-long future politicians-in-training program. Ben is a self-proclaimed politics junkie whose idol is Ronald Reagan; Steven is of Latinx heritage and a progressive who is a Bernie supporter; Robert is a young bit coin investor whose only college application is for West Point; and Rene, a moderate elected party chairman who has “never seen so many white people, ever.”
The documentary team follows these four, and many others, taking part in the Texas State, and it is a little like watching a political convention, but one with enormous youth energy and, at Boys State, a testosterone-fueled process that, of course, put forward many ideas – like anti-abortion and pro-gun rights but also more liberal subjects too.
The week long festivities, with each participant the representative of their city/county, include talent shows, debate, political speeches and all the trappings of the election process – including the ability to impeach. But, the teens are not there to have fun and go wild – which they do, sometimes.
But, these kids are not given free rein. They are closely monitored by American Legion coordinator trained in the State process and given guidance and direction, and free will. The melting pot of the selected subjects helps give “Boys State” an appeal that, in our current politically charged atmosphere, is timely, indeed.
"Boys State" will be available on Apple TV+ and virtual theaters on 8/14/20.