The documentary captures a summer camp like no other, where a group of 17-year-old boys play politics over seven days, providing an engrossing microcosm of American governance and its future
*This article contains some spoilers.
Held annually across the US, Boys State is a summer camp like no other. Attended by a rigorously selected group of 17-year-old boys, the week-long event simulates state elections, providing precocious teens the opportunity to play politics and build their own government from the ground up. Contestants are arbitrarily assigned a party – Federalists or Nationalists – and over the next seven days must develop their own platform, run for office, debate policy and hold elections, culminating in a vote for governor.
Sponsored by the American Legion veterans organisation, the programme (and its parallel event, Girls State) began as a counter-movement to incubate American democratic values amid the rise of socialism in the 1930s. Since then, it has provided a microcosm of the political zeitgeist and a rite of passage for tomorrow’s leaders, with Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and current head of Apple, Tim Cook, among its alumni.
For vérité documentary-makers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, it represented an ideal prism through which to investigate the health of American politics for their latest film, Boys State. “This was an effort on a personal level to understand the political division and paralysis of our country,” explains Moss. “Our seeming inability to actually talk and work constructively with people whose politics are different than our own.”
Each state hosts its own version of the programme (except Hawaii), but it was Texas Boys State, one of the country’s biggest with around 1,100 participants, which caught the attention of McBaine and Moss. In addition to making national headlines three years ago after it voted in favour of secession, the once staunchly conservative Lone Star State is undergoing profound demographic change that will see it enter this year’s election as a possible swing state. “We liked the idea that we were going into a space that was neither fully red or fully blue, a purple state that’s in flux and in play,” explains McBaine.
As with any vérité, character is everything, and after a statewide search interviewing candidates, “on their ranches, in their living rooms and high school libraries”, the directors settled on three protagonists, discovering one more shortly after the event began. On the Federalist campaign is Ben Feinstein, a double-amputee, self-confessed politics nut with ambitions of joining the CIA, and Robert MacDougall, a square-jawed Republican-in-the-making who looks like he’s walked off the set of a Richard Linklater movie. Leading the opposition are Stephen Garza, son of a first-generation Mexican migrant who quotes Napoleon and captures hearts and minds with his genial, level-headed rhetoric and René Otero, a Black teen with a gift for public speaking who confesses to having “never seen so many white people before”.
What initially threatens to descend into a contemporary incarnation of Lord of the Flies develops into an altogether more hopeful (yet equally entertaining) spectacle, in which politically engaged young men who value open dialogue and the exchange of ideas try to form a mandate. That’s not to say there aren’t worrying moments, yet in spite of the obligatory “USA!” chanting, chest-beating displays of machismo and Machiavellian manoeuvres, at its heart, this is an insight into the acquisition of power that distills current political trends. For some, like Rob, it’s little more than a game, one he’d “very much like to win”, while for the likes of Steven, it goes far deeper, embodying the essence of what it means to be American by engaging with democratic structures to help drive positive change.
Unlike previous projects undertaken by the directors, the making of Boys State provided unique challenges. Not only was the entire thing shot in seven days, it required multiple crews to keep pace with events as they unfolded. “For me as a director, and I think for Amanda too, it was a real surrender of ego,” says Moss. “Directing is about control and sometimes knowing when to let go, particularly in documentary. So figuring out how to matchmake between our team of DP’s and our subjects was kind of an interesting puzzle, and something of a gamble, too.”
Rounding off a breathless week of events in the Texas State Capitol are the gubernatorial elections. After a defiant campaign, in which he has ridden out a smear campaign (orchestrated over Instagram by Feinstein) suggesting he is anti-gun, the irrepressible Garza loses to Eddy Proietti Conti, another second-generation migrant with Gap catalogue good looks and a debating style that draws comparisons with Ben Shapiro. The result feels portentous, a distinctly un-Hollywood ending in which populism triumphs over policy. For McBaine however, the message is not so clear cut.
“When we got back to the edit room, we recognised that moment where he loses was a kind of release that we needed, in a way. I think where we’re at politically, to have Steven win would have felt like real wish fulfillment. It would have felt great, but I think what actually happened is a little more realistic to the event. Because the point is that he may have lost the battle but he’s going to win the war. Steven is a guy that will not stop.”
In holding a stethoscope to the pulse of American politics, the film’s greatest success is highlighting truth and nuance in a world that too often denies it. There are reasons for optimism and the story of Steven, an ethnic minority candidate who won over conservative minds with his integrity and willingness to listen, is one of several. More generally, Boys State spotlights a growing admission, embodied elsewhere by the likes of Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg, of the need for young people to take on moral leadership. As Moss notes, “Spending time with these guys did make me very hopeful ... I think it’s about recognising collectively that democracy is not a spectator sport and the threats to democracy that we’re confronting are very real. That requires all of us to find ways to raise our voice.”
Boys State is released on Apple TV+ on August 14, 2020