The political world is filled with men and women who both seek power for the sake of serve and help others or, more negatively, out of a need to self-validate by winning. Pending on the candidate’s goals and intentions, they can prove themselves to be agents for positive change or simply succumb to the immaturity of their youth.
But what does it look like when youth are the ones with the political power?
Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the new documentary Boys State takes the viewer behind the scenes at Boys State, a summer leadership program for teenage men, developed by The American Legion. (The film indicates that there is also a Girls State program but the filmmakers opt to only follow the boys.) With over a thousand teenage boys 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. Asked how they discovered Boys State, Moss claims that their interest was piqued back in 2017 when the events of the camp garnered national attention.
“We feel lucky to have stumbled upon Boys State as a prism to look at American politics and democracy today,” Moss begins. “We didn’t have the benefit of participating in the program as young people growing up in California. I just didn’t know about it. It wasn’t until we read about the program the Texas Boys State program, having voted to secede from the union becoming something of a scandal [in 2017] in the national news [that it] caught our eye. That was at a time that we, like a lot of Americans, were struggling to understand the irreconcilable political division in our country and how have we gotten to this point? What’s our way forward? I think [we saw] in Boys State and Texas, potentially a prism to look at these questions and look at how susceptible young men are to sort of the rhetoric of the moment and what they may offer us as a hope forward.”
When the boys first arrive, they are split between two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. However, despite the division, they are given no other political guidelines or priorities to build upon. Left to decide for themselves what they value, it’s fascinating to see how different the political ideologies can be amongst the youth. In developing their film, political diversity became a high priority for McBaine and Moss as they chose their subjects to follow.
“When we did find out about this program, we loved the idea that there’s this space where kids with politics to the right and to the left, [who] are [invited] and forced to come together and talk politics face to face,” McBaine explains. “There are so few of those spaces left, maybe not even the Thanksgiving table anymore in a family. So, we knew going in that it was going to be fraught and we hoped it would be. We knew it would be uncomfortable. It would be really interesting to see what went down if they voted to secede in 2017, what the heck were they going to do in 2018? But there’s 1,100 kids who were invited to attend every year and that’s a lot of people.”
“We knew the only way we were going to be able to survive this event as something occurs and as a crew trying to cover it, but also emotionally. The kind of films we make really are character driven. We wanted to immerse ourselves with a small group, and we wanted that small group to have a diversity of not only background in life experience, but also different politics. So, we worked very hard over three months, criss-crossing Texas, and filming with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of boys, until we found the four that we do end up following through the program, all of whom are very different and surprise us. We’re very lucky we found the four that we did.”
Although Boys State seems to consist of a form of hyperreality of the political world, it does offer a window into the machinations of backroom Washington and the games that are often played behind the scenes. However, given the age of the participants, it begs the question of whether or not the young men took their experience seriously. While the sheer number of youth ensured a range in maturity, Moss claims that he was impressed just how important the experience was to many of the boys.
“I think there was both [mature and immature youth]. Actually, what’s interesting is you see both embodied in Robert himself,” he points out. “[Robert’s] not sure if he should take the process seriously or play to the cheap seats. I love that sort of just to work it out for himself and he realizes that he’s miscalculated and that Steven has actually taken it more seriously than he has. I love that discovery (Robert’s discovery and our discovery) that he’s been trying to figure it out. We were attracted to young men who take politics seriously. No doubt, all of them do. Robert had been a page in the U S Senate. Stephen had worked on political campaigns. Ben, as you know, had a Ronald Reagan doll on his bookshelf and is a political junkie. Renee is already like a grownup and taking activism and politics seriously. So we connected with their serious commitment to the political process and caring about it. No doubt that we saw boys that don’t take it seriously. You see them pass legislation about Prius drivers going to Oklahoma and pineapple pizza. That’s funny, but then actually got serious. I think that tension in Robert, in the group (and maybe our country as a whole) is really sort of reflective, right? It is actually kind of where we’re at. People want to go to Washington and blow up the system, whatever that means. We’re left with a bunch of rubble or they want to kind of come together and figure it out. Those ideologies are in contest at Boys State and exaggerated form.”
“They’re also 17, right?” reminds McBaine. “We’re also making a coming-of-age film. I think that straddle of boyhood and headed towards manhood thing is a space we also wanted to visit frankly and check in with. So, to some degree, the serious unserious is part of their everyday in everything they do, let alone what happens.”
Similarly, one of the most fascinating explorations within Boys State becomes the drive for power. Although being elected within their system offers no real weight outside of Boys State, the drive to victory becomes a purpose unto itself for many of the youth. Asked what they saw regarding the pressure of obtaining power, Moss feels their experience shows that, while some people are simply willing to do whatever it takes to win, others do understand the importance of serving in political office.
“I think no doubt this kind of lust for power for power sake is something we’re living with and the consequences of that now in a very profound and unsettling way,” says Moss. “I love the moment where Steven has asked, ‘What is the purpose of a politician?’ (He’s campaigning for signatures on his ballot.) He says ‘To serve others and not themselves.’ That simple and yet profound definition is something we all need to remind ourselves about. I think you see it in Ben (and he would recognize it now himself with some perspective) that there’s a kind of corrosive aspect to winning an election at all costs for the sake of winning. He really embodies that in his strategy and his tactics. He’s brilliant at it. He even invokes some military kind of metaphors and talks about politics and winning as combined arms warfare, sort of exaggerated kind of violence to politics. So, confronting that and actually hearing Ben’s direct bluntness about it was shocking. But I think also what gave us hope was to see young men of color like Renee and Steven who have very different politics than the mainstream at Boys State rise to power because they have a positive vision. That sort of power for a purpose, if you will, was very hopeful for us to see not only them offer that vision, but to see their vision return in the support of the electorate.”
Since the experience consists of 1,100 young men battling for political gamesmanship, the film also feels like a window into youthful (and potentially toxic) masculinity. Filmed at the time surrounding the MeToo movement of 2018, McBaine notes that, while she didn’t know what to expect, she was encouraged by what she saw in some of the young men.
“We went with all these questions about democracy and hyperpolarization, and what are [the next generation are] taking in, and what they’re seeing in adult state,” she clarifies. “I think what we didn’t quite realize until we got into the room with 1,100 boys, that we also had this incredible window into boyhood. [It was] 2018. I guess if I thought hard enough beforehand, I would have realized this is what we’re going to see, but not until I got there did I really have to confront that we were making a film about masculinity on some level. I’ve never been in a space like that. Myself and two other cinematographers I think we were the only females for miles around. There was plenty on display there that kind of met my expectations for good or for bad about what I would see.”
“In checking in on boyhood in 2018, around the era of MeToo, around conversations about toxic masculinity [and] what they’re seeing in politics in Washington, I knew I was going to see a certain amount of it. Some of it was going to scare the heck out of me and some of it was going to upset me. What I wasn’t totally prepared for—and I love this about what I do for a living—is that I then also saw and experienced all kinds of masculinity I hadn’t expected to see. And that really did involve a lot more empathy. Not just from Steven, this was really in a lot more spaces around the event than I thought, [with] listening and real emotion, frankly. It was an emotional week that I didn’t think was going to be an emotional week. That too has power in that space, and truly profound power. The connections that were made between some of these boys was really heartening, frankly and made me less worried about the men of the future… We want to do [Girls State] next. I don’t really have any good intel on what happens in those spaces yet, but we plan to soon.”
When he considers whether or not their experience at Boys State has changed their view of the current political system, Moss believes that the film shows the type of maturity and growth within the participants that gives him hope for the future.
“I think we both wanted, on some level, a Hollywood ending to our story,” Moss reflects. “Actually, it was a process to accept what the outcome was, but we found it actually ultimately very uplifting that it’s a struggle. Stephen will continue to fight for what he believes in and he has so much to offer both in he himself, um, but in what he embodies and will inspire in others. Renee as well, what’s also been great to see is how much reflection Ben has brought to his behavior two years ago at Boys’ State and now he recognizes the corrosive impact of such politics on our body politic. He’s really disavowed that kind of politicking and the gamesmanship. I think that kind of moral growth we need as a country, he shown us in person, and that’s also really hopeful. Just the fact that we can still all get together, Ben, Renee, Steven, Robert, and kind of talk in a small form embodies what I hope for us as a country. We may not agree on everything, but at least come together and find out as Steven would say, what can we agree on? I’m sure there is something.”
Boys State is available on AppleTV+ now.