Review: ‘Boys State’ is a haunting documentary about youth politics in the modern age

'Boys State' is available on AppleTV+. (Photo courtesy of Apple)

When I first saw the trailer for Jesse Moss’ and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State, I didn’t know what to expect. Was it a documentary highlighting a niche political camp in Texas or a deep dive into youth indoctrination? (Hint: it’s neither.)

Instead, the movie follows four boys, two running for office and two planning campaigns, in the Texas Boys State, a program where high school students create their own government. From boarding the bus to Austin to the final gubernatorial race, Boys State conveys just how far some will go to win an election.

The film is a striking vérité documentary that balances highlighting the ruthlessness of politics and the humans behind them. Boys State does a great job of storytelling by giving enough exposition about the four stars of the film in between what’s happening at the program. No one’s a hero or a villain — they’re simply boys finding their paths to becoming elected officials.

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Hosted yearly across the country by the American Legion, Boys State is a program where teens learn about the process of government and create their own through elections, from the city level all the way up to the state level.

Set in 2018, about 1,100 boys donning Texas Boys State T-shirts sit in a room, ready for the hectic week ahead of them. Students run campaigns, elect officials and even pass bills (in past years they banned cargo shorts and once even voted for Texas to secede from the United States).

Four boys are the documentary’s stars, all racing to fill a seat. Ben Feinstein is a self-proclaimed “politics junkie” and a fan of Ronald Reagan, determined to get the job done. Steven Garza, a progressive and the son of an immigrant, values having important conversations with those who disagree with him. Robert MacDougall is set on a future at West Point and eager to win the race for Boys State governor. René Otero, a Chicago native passionate about leadership, is now in a group whose beliefs differ from his own.

“Steven, Robert, René and Ben are all so important because they understand history but are still engaged to move the country forward,” director Amanda McBaine said in a Zoom press conference held by A24 and Apple Original Films.

Boys State lets the boys talk for themselves and share their beliefs about what they hold dearly to their hearts — opinions on controversial topics such as abortion, gun rights and immigration. The boys lead the show and cameras are in the background.

Boys State starts out with a chilling quote from George Washington. “[Political] parties are likely to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp themselves the reins of government.” The quote remains a central theme throughout the film.

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Friendship, betrayal, enthusiasm, anger and disappointment all exist within the film’s one hour and 49 minutes. The boys go on press runs like our own politicians, completing interviews, giving speeches and riling up crowds with calls to action.

Everything about this documentary felt so authentic — Feinstein’s determination for his candidate to win by any means necessary; MacDougall practicing his speech to his peers during lunch on his 18th birthday; Garza walking up to people and genuinely asking what issues they value, determined on earning their votes; Otero’s confidence in his position as a leader despite opposition.

“They all turned out to be as complicated, interested and remarkable as we wanted them to be,” said director Jesse Moss.

“I saw the event from three other perspectives and seeing how my actions unfolded on screen allowed me to reflect a lot. There were still things I was proud of,” Feinstein said.

The film is filled with powerful moments. There’s a scene where Otero stands in front of his peers where a small group doesn’t want him as a leader. It’s beautiful how he proudly stands his ground.

While some moments feel anarchist — hundreds of boys cheering for half-baked bills made as a joke — there’s a balance between the candid darkness of politics and the humanity of it all. 

“It mirrors the politics in our country, structural conditions in our country now that voices have been disenfranchised,” Moss said. “The microcosm of Boys State contains powerful forces that we are all wrestling with as a country and could be a forum for our country.”

The film brings up important conversations surrounding bias, (at times racist) social media propaganda, lying about stances to get elected and mudslinging. Boys State holds up a mirror in front of its audience and makes us think about integral questions: Is it ever okay to lie to win an election? Where’s the line between political ads and propaganda?

“It’s great to run on what you believe in but not great if what you believe in is not going to win anything for you. There needs to be a balance of what you believe in and what will get you elected,” MacDougall said.

Boys State exists in the beautiful chaos of teenagehood, electoral politics and self-reflection.

“Things go off the rails, and that’s kind of the idea. Will this turn into Lord of the Flies, or will it get under control?” Moss said. “The surprise from me continues to be not only that order occurs, but who rises to power in that space and how they get there.”

 

CORRECTION: Due to a reporting error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated the Zoom press conference was held solely by A24. The press conference was held by A24 and Apple Original Films. This story has been updated.

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