Review: Fascinating Boys State Makes Politicians of Teens in a Summer Camp for Future Leaders

There’s a moment not too long into Boys State, the Sundance Grand Jury award-winning documentary about the annual mock-government conference for Texas high schoolers run by the American Legion now streaming on AppleTV, that might have you wanting to scream in frustration. Or maybe that’s just me. The film, by Amanda McBane and Jesse Moss, begins by giving us a lay of the land, from the history of the program (there is also one for girls, though that’s for a separate film) and some of its famous alumni (Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Cory Booker to name a few) to the rapid onboarding the young men get about the week ahead. Within about 15 minutes, the movie has already established how deeply ingrained the issues of masculinity, race, class and more are in our collective psyches, even as high school seniors. It’s all enough to make you want to give up right then and there; if these thousand young men gathered in Texas for the week-long experiment in self government are so tainted by societal and cultural influences, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Image courtesy of A24

Thankfully, the film does not end there, instead following a select group of participants as they lobby, campaign, cajole and downright scam their constituents and opponents into voting the way they want them to. There’s Ben, a budding political operative who counts Ronald Reagan among his heroes; René, a competitive public speaker with charm (and attitude) to spare; Steven, the son of immigrants whose progressive beliefs are in the minority in conservative Texas; and Rob, a walking definition of White Male Privilege at the film’s outset who goes so far as to acknowledge that what he’s pitching as his political platform isn’t necessarily what he really believes. It’s a game, and from the word go, he’s playing it.

In a sea of adolescent stubble and underdeveloped frontal lobes, McBane and Moss establish something of a microcosm of national politics—for better or worse—by mainly following these four participants. Over the course of the film, we learn a bit about each one of them through background footage in their home lives as well as moments from interviews with them that offer a bit of insight into particularly dramatic moments. And is there drama! Over the course of the week, the program is set up to replicate creating a governing body from scratch (they don’t get around to the actual governing, which may be part of our current problems in Washington…). Participants are assigned to fictional political parties, and the two groups are left to determine their platforms, appoint representatives, draft legislation and, in the event’s main attraction, run one of their own for Governor, the highest office in this summer camp land.

In this way, the film gets a bit of a natural arc—there’s the timeline of the program itself, and the narrative of a political campaign (and its results) condensed into 109 minutes. The speed with which the boys become practicing politicians is as impressive as it is terrifying; from workshopping catchy campaign slogans with their advisers to creating Instagram accounts with the sole purpose of smearing the opposition, these budding leaders will seemingly stop at nothing to win. There are threats of impeachment and squabbles over perceived injustices; there are even calls for secession, though that option was apparently taken off the table by organizers after an earlier group managed to go through with it and tank the whole experiment.

By the time the week is winding down and all that’s left is the final election, Ben, René, Steven, Rob and the rest have been on quite a journey, and it shows. Though the program allows its participants to go a bit hog wild at the outset, it’s clear that there are guardrails in place to truly teach these future leaders about the advantages and pitfalls that come with various approaches to governing. It’s beyond fascinating to watch the boys learn their lessons and adjust their positions accordingly as the stakes in their experiment get ever higher. Every choice along the way inherently checks their own egos, ambition and principles as they navigate what they’re willing to compromise on or not in an effort to achieve their goals. And when the final results are in, you’ll feel as though you know these boys well enough to cheer their triumphs, mourn their losses and champion their promising futures.

Boys State is now streaming on AppleTV

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone