One of the year’s best documentaries, “Boys State” presents a fascinating look at teenagers brought together for an exercise in government, which somehow manages to unerringly encapsulate partisan divisions in the US right now. An opening medley of past participants — including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh and Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito — only stokes curiosity about where these youngsters will be 30 or 40 years from now.
Situated in Texas and sponsored by the American Legion, Boys State is described as a “week-long experiment in self-governance” — a sort-of summer camp for student-body-president types, putting them through the process of electing a legislature and governor and actually proposing legislation.
Yet the intense lobbying and campaigning exposes fractures within our society, as well as flashes of a win-at-all-costs mentality — including dirty tricks and tribalism — that sadly appears to have permeated politics all the way down to our youth.
The kids have clearly absorbed talking points and tropes from the media they consume, as evidenced during the opening speeches when one loudly proclaims, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed!”
Ultimately, the film zeroes in on the candidates for governor representing the Nationalists and the Federalists, and especially Steven Garza, whose progressive views put him at odds with many — there’s a lot of talk about protecting Second Amendment rights — yet whose personal charisma wins some less-outspoken attendees over to his side.
Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine have accomplished the seemingly impossible task of taking a group of ambitious, media-fluent teens and somehow making the camera melt away, in a manner that makes their interactions and even their posturing seem real and unforced.
Already, one can see the participants not merely struggling to find points of compromise but in some instances sacrificing core beliefs in the pursuit of victory. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart,” one kid says, admitting that his stated opposition to abortion rights is not where he really stands on the issue.
A hit at the Sundance Film Festival, “Boys State” has been acquired by Apple TV+, which will hopefully give the film the platform that it deserves. For starters, it’s hard to think of a high school in America that wouldn’t benefit from seeing and discussing it.
Inescapably, there’s a sense throughout that these politically engaged youths will eventually become leaders, which makes the apparent lessons that they have internalized and figures who they admire (one is compared to conservative pundit Ben Shapiro) alternately inspiring and alarming.
“Who we elect matters,” a teacher tells the assembled group near the start of the documentary. If these children are, to quote the song, our future, the sobering message from “Boys State” lies in what we’re teaching them about morality, principles and their relationship to governance right now.
“Boys State” premieres Aug. 14 on Apple TV+.