If life is like high school, and politics has become just a reality show, then the documentary Boys State (★★★★☆) has found the perfect formula for distilling our modern political era down to one riveting campaign among a group of teens in Texas. Since 1935 — starting in Illinois, then throughout the U.S. — the American Legion has sponsored Boys State, which assembles high school lads for a week-long immersion in the functioning of state and local government. The deep dive into policy and civil discourse also confers a profound education in partisanship, at least according to the film’s broad insight into the summer 2018 assembly of Boys State Texas.
Day one, participants are randomly assigned to two political parties, Federalist and Nationalist, the members of which must caucus to decide their respective party’s positions and candidates in elections for statewide offices. The top elected spot would be the office of governor, although races for party chairman on both sides turn out to be hotly contested, as well. Of the hundreds of boys assembled, only a few will lead, and, whether to stoke their ambitions, to better themselves, or merely for the power and popularity, the ones who want it really want it.
They’re all also shrewdly aware that the previous year’s Boys State Texas assembly garnered headlines and hits nationwide by voting to secede from the United States. The temptation to leave a similarly sensational mark on history is brought up by more than one participant. They are a savvy group, social media-fluent, conscious of the camera but not overly self-conscious, and still notably conservative in their politics. Even in Texas, it’s striking to hear so many 17 and 18-year olds this fired up about being anti-abortion and pro-gun. One candidate for party chair, René Otero, calls the experience an education “that every liberal needs.”
A Black kid originally from Chicago, Otero operates with verbal dexterity and a take-no-shit fierceness that generally protects him from some low blows thrown by opponents. He’s one among the movie’s compelling quartet of lead subjects, including Steven Garza, the self-described progressive son of an immigrant, who arrives for the week wearing his Beto campaign tee, and Robert MacDougall, whose golden boy, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” bravado belies a genuinely thoughtful young man. The fourth, Ben Feinstein, a whip-smart amputee who prominently raises his disability in his campaign speech for party chairman, is the most openly calculating, confessing a belief that “personal attacks” are sometimes the most effective, expedient tactic.
Being bright teens, these guys aren’t above deception and obfuscation, yet they’re guileless enough to be refreshingly transparent about it, relative to their adult counterparts. The film’s directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss dangle the question of what happens to political aspirants between these noble years of wanting to perform a public service, and later becoming a hypocritical party stooge. The distance from one to the other might not be as vast as seemingly good guys like Steven Garza would hope. Not that any of these kids are bad guys — merely the voices of our future reflecting the truth right back at us.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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