by Justin Chang
Since they were founded in the 1930s by the American Legion, the Boys State and Girls State programs have been giving high schoolers a practical education in how government works. Students in every state are chosen to take part in a week-long summer experiment in which they must form their own representative democracy. As we learn from the opening credits of the terrific new documentary Boys State, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Cory Booker are just a few of the program’s famous alums.
The film, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, focuses on the Texas Boys State event that took place in June 2018. We see the roughly 1,200 participants arriving in Austin, where they are randomly divided into two political parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists. Those names carry no agenda: It’s up to both parties to hammer out a platform, choose their leaders and then run against each other in a week-long election campaign.
McBaine and Moss throw us into this mock government exercise without much preamble or explanation of the rules of the game. Like politics itself, the action can be a little confusing; unlike politics, it’s never boring, mainly because the movie wisely focuses on a select few participants. Either the filmmakers were extremely lucky in their choice of subjects, or they shot so much footage that they were able to isolate the most compelling personalities. In any event, the four young men we spend the most time with all end up playing key roles in the experiment’s nerve-wracking outcome.
The most ambitious of the bunch of is Ben, the Federalists’ party chair, who’s willing to do anything to win votes, including smearing the Nationalists on social media. Ben is politically conservative — he has a Ronald Reagan action figure to prove it — and he despises what he sees as the liberal tendency to divide people along lines of race, gender and disability. Ben speaks from some personal perspective: He lost both his legs to meningitis when he was 3.
The chair of the Nationalists’ party hails from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A progressive Black teenager originally from Chicago, René knows he stands out in this mostly white, conservative Texas field. He also stands out on merit: He has a seasoned politician’s command of rhetoric and can deftly out-argue any opponent. But he’s also capable of calling for party unity, as he does in an early speech.
If René has the sharpest mind and tongue in Boys State, its heart and soul belong to Steven, a fellow Nationalist Party member. Steven becomes an underdog in the race for Governor, the highest elected office. Like René, Steven stands out: He’s the son of a Mexican immigrant and he counts Bernie Sanders among his political heroes. His humility on the campaign trail and his stirring honesty in front of a microphone prove irresistible to the crowd. Again and again, he invites his fellow party members to tell him what issues are most important to them, so that he can be a better, truer representative for their concerns.
We see these young men debating a lot of issues, especially gun control. There’s a lot of talk about protecting the Second Amendment, but there are also counterarguments from students, like Steven, who have clearly been shaken by the sheer number of school shootings. Another much-discussed issue is abortion, which leads to one of the film’s most revealing moments. A Nationalist gubernatorial candidate named Robert, who’s running on a strict pro-life platform, admits on camera that he’s secretly pro-choice. “Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win,” he says. “That’s politics.”
Indeed it is. And while the filmmakers are working from a mostly neutral fly-on-the-wall perspective, their attitude toward the Boys State program feels ambivalent at best. Deliberately or not, the experiment seems to bring out a lot of the flaws of America’s political system itself: personal attacks, dishonest tactics and conflicts that hinge more on popularity than substantive policy debate. It’s undeniably inspiring to see so many young men with bright, engaged minds, and the best of them, as we see from the end of the movie, have already gone on to impressive new accomplishments. But it’s also dispiriting that so many of them have already learned to view politics in the most cynical way possible — as a game to be won by any means necessary.