Can 1,100 high school senior boys form an efficient state government? Each summer, the American Legion sponsors week-long camps known as Boys State (as well as separate Girls State) in every state that bring together a wide mix of high school students to learn what goes into elections and government. In Boys State, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBride take us to the 2018 version of Boys State in Texas. As these young men play out the process of party politics, it reveals some interesting things about our political system. The film was awarded the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance Film Festival this year.
The film opens with a title card with a quotation from George Washington’s Farewell Address: “[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.” Boys State is geared around a two-party system, although not ideologically based, as with Democrats and Republicans. Instead these young men are randomly divided into two parties, Federalist and Nationalist. It is up to each party to determine its platform, issues, and select candidates for an election. In essence, the parties are teams vying to win a political game.
The film focuses on four key characters as the week plays out. Ben Feinstein is a Reagan loving conservative. He’d like to join the armed services, but as a double amputee that’s not possible. Perhaps he’ll try for the CIA or FBI. Steven Garza is a progressive son of immigrants. After the Parkland school shooting he organized a gun control march in Houston. Robert MacDougall is good looking, athletic, outgoing—a typical high school A-lister. His dream is to go to West Point. René Otero is an African-American who has only recently arrived in Texas from Chicago. Ben becomes the Party Chair for the Federalist. René is his counterpart for the Nationalists. Steve and Robert are rivals for the Nationalist gubernatorial nomination.
As the week plays on, we watch as the political process becomes more and more like real life. There are chaotic party meetings with challenges to leadership, there are smear campaigns, there are rousing speeches, an admission from one candidate that he will say what he thinks others want to hear, even if it is different than his own beliefs, and an example of a would be leader who wants to work cooperatively, but will maintain his integrity.
Because this is Boys State with rooms full of 17 year-olds, there is a lot of testosterone in the room. And because it is Texas, the predominant ideology is conservative, especially in terms of issues relating to guns and abortion. It would be interesting to see what issues would come up and how they would be handled at Girls State and in blue states.
One of the things that attracted the filmmakers to Texas Boys State was that the year previous, the Texas Boys State government voted to secede from the US. That issue is brought up again in this film, and it is interesting to see how the student leader dealt with the issue to prevent another such occurrence.
A cynical viewer might watch the film and be discouraged that the political gamesmanship puts so much emphasis on winning per se over ideas and character. But there are also signs of hope. Steve, in one of his wonderfully crafted and impassioned speeches, asks his listeners to be united and show the adults how things can be done. Perhaps he seems a bit idealistic, but as we head into the current political season, Boys State might make a good primer for us to use in considering the way we see real politicians acting. Will we see them with cynical eyes, or have idealistic hope in what could be?
After a virtual theatrical opening, Boys State will be streamed on Apple TV+.
To hear audio of our interview with directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, click here.
Photos courtesy of Apple Originals.