“I think he’s a fantastic politician… but I don’t think fantastic politician is a compliment either.” – Rene Otero, Boys State
Streaming on AppleTV+, the new documentary Boys State takes the viewer behind the scenes at Boys State, a summer leadership program for teenage boys, developed by The American Legion. (The film indicates that there is also a Girls State program but the filmmakers opt to only follow the males.) With over a thousand teenagers in attendance, the youth are challenged to build a representative government from the ground up. As the young men nominate and elect candidates, they also must decide what means—and requires—to win at the game of politics.
Produced and directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, State is a fascinating look at both the inner-workings of the US political system and the poisonous effects of power. While the film may focus on one week of ‘camp’ for teenage boys, it feels like a fly on the wall of the American political sanctum. Featuring all the battles between moral judgments and political power that one would expect within the world of the US government, Boys State is both a terrifying look at the corrupting nature of power and a glimmer of hope that the next generation of leaders will set right the mistakes of the past.
While the week begins with the teens bringing the expected amount of youthful exuberance into the political process (like, for example, attempting to secede Texas from the US), things eventually begin to take a turn as process progresses. As the race for Governor begins to pick up steam, things become far more serious behind the scenes as candidates begin to move away from youthful chaos into political positioning. As smear campaigns, double speak and blind dedication to ‘whatever the Party agrees on’ begin to arise in backroom conversations, the teens begin to sound less like youth and more like their adult counterparts on Capitol Hill. (In fact, one candidate even goes so far as to mention that his primary impulse for entering into the race is not about serving others but simply to fulfill his own need to ‘win’.) In doing so, State becomes an example of how the drive for power can corrupt at any age when winning turn out to be the primary objective.
At the same time, while some candidates become obsessed with achieving their goals for personal glory, State also shows that there are some candidates who remain committed to victory through honourable means. In the face of political maneuverings, some youth are willing to maintain their character in a healthy manner. But can they win that way? In many ways, the greatest—and most terrifying—question within Boys State is not whether or not the youth will resort to ‘dirty campaign tricks’ but whether or not keeping their integrity will bring victory in the end.
In this way, State feels like a film that features a battle for the soul of a nation. If the young men selected to participate Boys State see the importance of integrity in their politicians, maybe the next generation will also consider that a high value. If not, it stands to reason that little will change in the future. As a result, Boys State may focus on a week of camp for teenage boys but, in actuality, the film is about much more than that. As these young men fight for power amongst their peers, their decisions may also offers a glimpse into the future, whether its bleak or hopeful.
Boys State premieres on Apple TV+ on July 17th, 2020.
To hear audio of our interview with directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, click here.