Perhaps nothing is more terrifying for anyone in their mid-twenties or older than confronting a horde of rowdy teenagers. This fear is confronted in the documentary Boys State— directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Mosse— where the cast consists of twelve hundred sixteen-year-old boys. In this annual summer-camp-cum-political experiment of Boys State in Texas, the boys campaign and stage elections amongst themselves to learn about voting and governance for two weeks. The experiment allocates each boy into one of two political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. From the start, the groups lack a defined agenda—the boys must decide on a party platform amongst themselves before finding suitable candidates. Most of the boys are white and lean heavily conservative, building on platforms centering attention-grabbing subjects like abortion and gun control.
But the documentary is less concerned with the political makeup of Boys State than each of the individuals fighting for power. Its primary focus is on Steven Garza, a more soft-spoken boy who is the son of a Mexican immigrant and is on track to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. He’s after the ultimate prize of Boys State—the position of governor. But unlike the others who attempt to rally support for their campaigns with catchy slogans and gimmicky grabs for attention, Steven is concerned with connecting with individuals in his constituency. His empathy and passion for his beliefs (far more left-leaning than most of the others) makes him a compelling figure, and the viewer is brought along for the ride to see him through his successes and failures.
Though the movie is therefore interesting and occasionally very moving, it’s unable to serve as a microcosm of broader American political life. The concept of Boys State is ultimately experimental—there’s no actual wielding of power if a boy becomes governor. Of course, that’s not to say that Boys State is completely isolated from real-world tensions. Campaigns are waged on social media, and the movie isn’t short on mudslinging, which occasionally even turns racist. And yet, both the program and the documentary itself still ground themselves in their belief of a civically minded, legitimate body politic. Perhaps its messaging may have been more relatable in a non-election year in a less politically fraught time. But in 2020, conversations in America are concerned with not only ideological differences but the very legitimacy of voting and its outcomes. Ultimately, the boys all arrive with self-serving intentions, to grab hold of whatever power they can manage in a few days. And yet it seems almost quaint to see this process be agreed upon peacefully and not be undermined.
Nevertheless, the movie is still a unique glimpse into a little-known cultural phenomenon. Its strengths are the most obvious in the talking heads with the boys, as all of the subjects are surprisingly perceptive about their motivations and tactics at Boys State. When the boys unpack their own victories and doubts on camera, there’s no impression that they’re holding anything back from their audience. In an interview, one of them reflects on his campaign’s loss, saying he shouldn’t have tried to draw votes through only bluster and rowdiness. It’s a sobering moment when he realises that he underestimated the others: that deep down, many of the boys did want to take the experience seriously through honest campaigning. Perhaps youthfulness is precisely what allowed the boys to be so deeply candid onscreen. It’s the kind of attitude that’s refreshing to see from a group of politicians.
Boys State is available to watch now on Apple TV
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.