Fresh from the Sundance Film Festival and new on Apple TV+, the documentary film Boys State offers a fascinating look into where some of the next generation of American political leaders will come from. Set at the titular event, an American Legion-sponsored program where over one thousand ambitious teenage boys converge in Austin, Texas to form a mock government, it shows both youthful ideals and naked ambition as young would-be leaders get their first taste of a larger pond.
BOYS STATE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: Since 1935, the American Legion has sponsored a program known as “Boys State”, which selects a crop of politically-minded high school students to participate in a week-long exercise in mock government, complete with political parties, platforms, candidates and elections. Programs exist in each state in the country, and this new documentary follows one of the largest—Texas Boys State, taking place in the state capital of Austin.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Real life shades of fictional high school politics stories like Election and The Politician, with the same frenetic campaign-as-it-happens energy of the AOC documentary Knock Down The House.
Performance Worth Watching: These are real people on display, but the runaway stars of the show are four teen candidates with very different viewpoints—the Reagan-inspired conservative Ben Feinstein and the eager progressive Steven Garza; the folksy and foul-mouthed populist Robert MacDougall and the quiet intellectual Rene Otero.
Memorable Dialogue: “What about you? You have no clue? Feinstein for Freedom, I hope I can count on your vote.” “I love me an audience, even if they don’t love me.”
Sex and Skin: Absolutely none, and, c’mon, why would you ask that.
Our Take: The sheer irony-free nuttiness of Boys State can be hard to comprehend if you’re not already familiar with the program, a long-running tradition that attracts studious, quiet boys and fiery demagogues, the kind of people who can arrive in a crowd of strangers in a new city and campaign for their vote in a matter of days. A number of prominent politicians and public figures have passed through the program in their youth, from Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney to Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen. (There is a parallel program for young women, Girls State, that runs in a separate location from the boys’ program and receives little acknowledgment in this film.) On a personal note, I myself attended the Ohio version of Boys State as a high school senior in 1999. Boys State does a terrific job of capturing the utter weirdness of the event without playing it as comedy.
There’s not a lot of editorializing on display here; the film is presented without narration and a light hand when it comes to contextualizing, and that’s to its benefit; the boys themselves tell the story. Some of them are endearing young men with a gleam in their eye for the hope of their country; others are borderline terrifying in their zeal, ambition and rhetoric. Some take it with deadly seriousness; others make jokey proposals and lampoon the process. (I was certainly in that latter camp.) The film isn’t taking a stance or playing favorites, it’s a well done fly-on-the-wall view of both sides.
The program itself moves briskly, with only a week for participants to be assigned their political parties—there’s no Republicans or Democrats here, they’re Federalists or Nationalist, though it’s plainly obvious which side many of the students themselves fall on—choose party leaders, hammer out platforms, and hold elections for their mock state’s top issues. The film matches this pace, not branching out into flashbacks or side tangents, but keeping the focus very effectively on the whirlwind week of politicking.
It’s likely that there are things you’ll recoil at in this documentary—the politics, personalities and platforms of these students quickly tend to the extreme, and the energy of a thousand boys on their own can feel like Lord of the Flies at times, but there’s plenty to like in the process as well; future leaders with their heads screwed on straighter than many of us had at age 17.
Our Call: STREAM IT! If you’ve got any tolerance left in your system for politics this year, Boys State is a fun look into an unusual but long-running corner of our political world.
Scott Hines is an architect, blogger and internet user who lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, two young children, and a small, loud dog.
Watch Boys State on Apple TV+
Source: New York Post
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