Over 1,200 high school boys gather annually in Austin to participate in a seven-day democratic experiment designed to test their mettle.
A mock government program put on nationwide by the American Legion, Boys State challenges these young men to form their own political parties, hold primaries and eventually a statewide race for a variety of offices culminating in a gubernatorial election.
Each iteration of this lesson in political gamesmanship masquerading as a crash course in civics is unique, although the Sundance Film Festival award winning documentary “Boys State” from co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss provides an exceptionally compelling look inside the minds of future American leadership with their nearly two-hour feature on the 2018 Texas Boys State program.
McBaine and Moss perfectly set the stage from the outset, highlighting major political leaders including President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and commentator Rush Limbaugh as alumni of the program.
“Boys State” is intended to feel like a glimpse into the crystal ball of America’s political future and it’s often revealing to watch aspiring young men hoping to make a difference in their world see what it takes to be successful – balancing bipartisanship with charisma, ideals with the relentless pursuit of a win.
At the film’s core, four major participants emerge representing the elected leadership of both the Federalist and Nationalist political parties created for the program and it’s through these stories that audiences are able to gain an understanding of how the next generation of political leaders will be molded and come to shape America’s identity.
For as much as the film gets in close with the participants and has the feeling of a raw political campaign, “Boys State” is strikingly cinematic with its camerawork, lingering on intense closeups as events unfold in real time and giving the film a scripted fictional vibe that could have some viewers doubting the authenticity of the scenes.
The choice to have the major characters interviewed on a long loveseat works wonders in the film’s latter half as the boys become more comfortable and honest in front of the camera, often sprawling out like relaxed chameleons letting audiences in on their secrets as if it were an episode of television reality game show “Survivor.”
Somewhat surprisingly, a film entitled “Boys State” that follows young men creating their own political agendas and campaigns fails to truly address the masculinity of their decision-making process, especially on the issue of abortion.
One candidate’s revelation about hiding their pro-choice beliefs to try and garner favor with potential votes is especially compelling as the Boys State program begins to escalate and normalize “dirty tricks” politics.
As filmmakers, the directors attempt to portray this neutrally but it’s often with a tinge of sadness for the lack of bipartisanship and morality.
It’s best summed up by one of the participants, who comments that a rival is a “fantastic politician, but I don’t think that a fantastic politician is a compliment either.”
Like the program itself, “Boys State” makes ardent attempts to be non-partisan in its approach and allow events to unfold naturally, but the subjects it chooses inherently give the feature a liberal tint that conservatives may latch onto to dismiss the film as a whole.
The star of “Boys State” is unassuming, mild-mannered Steven Garza, born in Mission, Texas to an immigrant mother before moving to Houston. Shown early in the film wearing a “Beto for Senate” t-shirt and shyly introducing himself to other participants, his rise to a potential run for governor is the single most compelling storyline within “Boys State” and riveting to watch.
At times, McBaine and Moss’s love for Garza overwhelms the larger narrative of the film and tilts the political balance a tad too far, but by that point, viewers are so invested in the outcome of a mock race that happened two years ago, it hardly matters.
With the humor of “Election” and the heart of “Boyhood,” this verité film is an enthralling look at American politics through the lens of those who will come to shape it for the next 40-50 years. Without question the best documentary to be released thus far in 2020, “Boys State” proves that quality storytelling can be crafted in the genre with substance and soul, making it a must watch on AppleTV.