“Boys State” is a gripping documentary that won the jury prize for documentary film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It puts us into the world of American Legion’s Boys State (there’s also a Girl’s State), a summer program for high school boys that allows them to create a mock government. In the film, 1,100 teenagers gather at the University of Texas. In their week-long training, they go through legislative sessions, court proceedings, law-enforcement presentations, assemblies, bands, choruses, and recreational programs. They are taught about the government from the township to the state level. The boys are split into two parties: the Nationalists and Federalists—who run political campaigns for the House of Representatives and Senate seats, executive offices (governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer, etc.) and also for city and county offices such as mayor, county clerk, municipal judge, city councilman, and a lot more. Model U.N., move out of the way, this one’s the real deal.
In this Apple TV+ film by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss that takes place in 2018, we get a deep dive into some of the most passionate debates and cunning decision making that these brilliant young leaders make. It was riveting to see the brave speeches and firm stances these youngsters have on social issues like abortion, gun rights and secession. But it was more unexpected to see some of them compromise their strong opinions about these issues for the sake of reaching a middle ground with everyone. Some of the candidates even resemble real-life politicians.
We are first introduced to Ben Feinstein, a double amputee who’s a political junkie with a Ronald Reagan action figure. He lost his legs when he was 3 due to meningitis. Before entering the training, he delivers a proud speech to his family in his home about how not everyone should be seen as groups of race, disability, or gender. “I don’t see myself as white, I see myself as Ben Feinstein, American.” He highlights in his next speeches and interviews that he knows the value of hope, faith, and hard work. He is elected as the State Chairman of the Federalist Party. And one thing he is also capable of is running smear campaigns against the nationalists on social media.
The film’s main character is a gubernatorial candidate from the Nationalist party—Steven Garza. His grassroots movement is strengthened by his real-life back story. (For those who don’t know, a grassroots movement is one which uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international level.) The son of an immigrant from Mexico who came to the U.S. to live an “ok life.” His story has the essence of the American dream and this makes people gravitate more towards him. What people love about him, is that he is thankful for the opportunities that America gave him. He strives to build a diverse coalition that is united and fair. The first speech he delivers perfectly encapsulates his grassroots approach and one that would absolutely get you clapping.
Robert Macdougal, Garza’s opponent for party leader, is Machiavellian in his campaign. In Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, one of the main themes was Goodwill & Hatred. To remain in power, a prince must avoid the hatred of his people. The extreme approach would include using deception, manipulation, theft, and, in the extreme, even physical coercion or murder. And while Macdougal isn’t guilty of the extremes, he certainly deceives and manipulates in his campaign. He says in an interview that he’ll play his campaign “like a game.” He also stated that “As to the political views, voiced in my speech, sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in attempts to win.” And that he developed a better understanding during his campaign about how politicians lie to get a position. These, of course, are reminiscent of Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means.” philosophy. People might get turned off by this but his character arc shows how he is willing to sacrifice himself for the betterment of his country. And I believe his good intentions were at full display when he dropped out of the race and let Steven win.
By far the one with the most personality and smarts is René Otero. A black teenager originally hailing from Chicago. When he moved to Texas, he felt like the state was filled with white people and he was the only one who was black. This inspired him to be representative of the black community in Texas. His speech for the State Chairman of the Nationalist Party had a centrist approach. He stated his experience with politics and then used a metaphor. I love the metaphor he used with the airplane not leaning too much to the left or too much to the right; he was going to make sure that the plane would have enough weight on the sides and on the center to keep it from crashing. It was truly an amazing speech and I cheered with the crowd when his speech ended.
When René got elected as State Party Chair, he tried keeping order during sessions and made sure that everything underwent the correct process. This turned off some of his conservative party members which motivated them to build a coalition and an Instagram account protesting to oust him as party chair. Later on, Ben Feinstein admitted to the production crew that he was cooperating with the people who made the posts but he ended his cooperation with the publishers when the theme of the posts became racist. René was humored by the tactics of his bashers because he never expected them to devolve in such old methods. René entertained the impeachment motion in one of the sessions and was absolutely elated and empowered when everyone counted the minuscule votes for ousting him. He remarked on the stage that they can make a basketball team with their numbers as he smiled from ear to ear. ABSOLUTE SAVAGE MOMENT.
This is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year. It certainly shows the advantages of educating people about politics at a young age. Having politically literate citizens will strengthen political participation, therefore, creating a better democratic system.
Boys State gets a 9/10