With the 2020 presidential election ever looming, unanswered questions about the future of American politics continue to be relevant. Created as a response to Trumpism and the rise of populism across the world, the documentary Boys State, available on Apple TV Plus, serves as an eye-opening critique of political campaigning.
The film focuses on a political simulation called Boys State. Every year, states across the nation bring together hundreds of 17-year-olds to engage in a simulated exercise of state politics. In Texas, we meet some of the teens on their bus rides to Austin, where Texas’ Boys State takes place every year. Eavesdropping on their political small talk, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss show us how in a state such as Texas, the political spectrum of normal discourse is wider than expected. The camera cuts from comments about President Obama being a “near-socialist” to others praising Senator Bernie Sanders for inspiring them to get into politics. The discussion is tame for now, but things begin to change as everyone arrives at the state capital for the simulation.
The teens are randomly split into two separate independent parties, Federalist and Nationalist. Each party has to create a platform, organize authority within their respective parties, and strategize how to elect members to a mock state government. Boys State puts most of the focus on each party’s attempt to win the most prized seat: governor of Texas.
The film closely follows four young men and their journey at Boys State. Stephen Garza, the heartbeat and main character of the film, is the embodiment of the American dream. Stephen’s mother emigrated from Mexico and was undocumented for a period of time. Fierce yet unapologetically kind, he’s seen sporting a “Beto for Senate” shirt when we first meet him.
Rene Otero is a fantastic orator—so fantastic that some of the things he says stick in your mind days later—and immediately easy to root for. He’s one of the few Black students at Boys State, and his experience demonstrates how racial issues factor into the exercise.
Rob McDougall is your classic Texan high school cool guy. Complete with cowboy boots and a crazily painted truck, he’s got a lot of brains, too. One incredible scene in the documentary involves him expressing his anti-abortion beliefs to numerous members of the party even though he later confesses he is pro-choice. He admits, “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all, so I chose to pick a new stance. That’s politics.”
Finally, Ben Feinstein is basically a 17-year-old Dick Cheney. Serving as the leader of the Federalist Party, he takes the reins early on and begins pulling all of the political strings for the party. A self-described politics junkie, he clearly knows exactly what he’s doing from the very beginning of Boys State.
Both parties at Boys State are diverse in terms of geography, race, and socioeconomic status, creating an environment where compromise is necessary. The film does a fantastic job of capturing all of the colorful personalities involved in the exercise, teenagers who could one day become leaders of the country. Watching young men who vehemently disagree with one another work together “for the sake of Texas,” as they say, projects an optimistic image of how the future politicians of this country think.
At the same time, as the race for governor gets tighter and tighter, the participants engage in more combative strategies, smearing and aggressively attacking their opponents. Ben, with his win-at-all-cost mentality, shows just how ruthless campaigning can be. While it feels a bit amateurish to see 17-year-olds attempting a smear campaign in a mock election, it serves as a dangerous reminder of how powerful political bullying can be in the real world. Sometimes hate can generate political momentum better than collaboration.
McBaine and Moss create a wildly entertaining documentary that will cause viewers to simultaneously challenge and reinforce their own political beliefs as they watch 17-year-olds do the same. While much uncertainty lies ahead for our country, we can hope that the lessons and truths gained, for both the teens in Texas and audience members across the country, are not forgotten. Boys State offers a glimpse of the state of American politics, and most importantly, where it is headed.
Featured image courtesy of A24