If you think that political dirty tricks, petty party in-fighting, and character assassinations are only the vestige of seasoned professionals in D.C., just wait till you see BOYS STATE. It’s the new, award-winning documentary landing on Apple TV+ this week, produced by A24. In their film, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain chronicle a 2017 Boys State conference, sponsored by the American Legion in Texas. In it, thousands of teens gathered to build a pseudo-representative government in less than a week. It’s a film both fascinating and frightening as it showcases the good, the bad, and the ugly of America’s youth exercising their approach to our political system.
The documentary concentrates on a batch of these civic-minded teens who’ve come chomping at the bit to engage in the process. In short order, these boys must join a party affiliation (liberal or conservative), and start a campaign to win as much of the power in the state as they can, from congressional seats to the governorship. It’s the Nationalists (standing in for the Democrats) versus the Federalists (representing Republicans), with little room for other parties or nuance.
The participants are all extremely passionate, albeit to a fault. They may believe in service for the country, but as the film spools out what becomes most clear is that they crave power and control, just like so many politicians they’ve studied who are decades older. The boys’ style is mostly macho, akin more to the mentality on display on a football field or in the military. The boys heralded as the strongest are generally the brashest and the most bullying. As for respect between the two parties, there’s precious little more of it on display in this youthful Texas conclave than amongst the powerbrokers battling in Washington D.C. day in and day out.
One of the boys at the center of the drama is Ben Feinstein. He’s a smart and amiable, a conservative running for the ‘governorship.’ Yet despite being handicapped – he has prosthetic legs – he’s all too quick to play “hardball” against an opponent, even if it included whispering campaigns. He aligns himself with some of the snider students on the Federalist side including one who likens himself to Ben Shapiro, the conservative firebrand who never met an outrageous statement he didn’t blare like a trumpet. Feinstein may profess to be a positive go-getter, a kid pulling himself up by his bootstraps, but if we’re judging by his tactics and the company he keeps, he’s often less than admirable.
His Nationalist opponent running for guv is, not surprisingly, an exceedingly sensitive type. Latino Steven Garza is thoughtful and steady, but because he’s running for the top office, his slow-and-steady manner comes off as a bit milquetoast amongst his peers. Can his naivete possibly prevail? His fellow progressive Rene Otero may be more suited to leadership since he’s clearly the smartest guy in the room, but he’s also the most outspoken. Of course, the Federalists will soon use those characteristics against him and try to make his character more of an issue than it should be. These Feds have clearly learned a lot from predecessors in the state like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
A lot of the documentary is laugh-out-loud hilarious, especially when the teens start to resemble the children arguing over the conch in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. What isn’t so funny, however, is how so many of the boys readily embrace Texas’ blithe gun culture, dismiss any deep discussion of a woman’s productive rights, and further propagate questionable economic policies that haven’t worked in decades. (I’d like to think that the Girls State conference in Texas is much more thoughtful.) Too many of these boys, supposedly the Lone Star State’s best and brightest, come off as utter jerks. They’re the kind of guys you wouldn’t want running a frat house, let alone a congressional one.
I’m not sure if it was the intent of the filmmakers to show how America’s youth may not be quite the saviors many were hoping for, and that political prejudices are so baked-in that kids come to such conclaves with almost completely closed minds, but that’s the ultimate takeaway. BOYS STATE is never less than compelling, but it’s depressing too. Instead of showing a teen body gung-ho to help get this country out of its malaise, it instead shows a group of opportunists loving the fight more than truly working together to do some good. The film ends up being a searing indictment of this nation and the potential leadership amongst Generation Z. It practically plays like an elegy.