“Boys State” – “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 for themselves the reins of government.” – George Washington, 1796
The aforementioned quote appears at the beginning of “Boys State”, a highly compelling documentary – from directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss – that presents Texas Boys State, an American Legion-promoted event in which over 1,000 teenage boys descend on Austin to engage in a government simulation.
Given the current combative state of American politics, the thought of this many young men dividing up into two parties (the Nationalists and Federalists), organizing rallies, writing and delivering speeches, forming coalitions, and culminating their week-long endeavors by electing one governor might cause your head to spin.
“You have no time to take it all in. (On the) first day, they throw you into that arena, and it’s like a battle royale. It’s crazy.” – Steven Garza, Nationalist Party, during a July 23, 2020 Zoom call
McBaine and Moss also dive into the fray with cameras in hand. They follow streams of kids – all donning identical, white Texas Boys State T-shirts and red lanyards – throughout the University of Texas courtyards and lecture halls. For anyone who felt anxious during their first days of high school or the initial 24-hour maze of the college experience, these Boys State meet-and-greets – both big and small – might trigger some previously-buried flashbacks from yesteryear….or yestercentury.
Some boys’ voices do not quite resonate. Others, however, do ring with their fellow Nationalists and Federalists. As leaders emerge, McBaine and Moss feature four key players.
Ben Feinstein, a well-spoken political junkie, carries the ambition of David Plouffe or Karl Rove and sizes up every individual with the speedy, cold calculations of Joshua from “WarGames” (1983). Even though Global Thermonuclear War isn’t at the top of Ben’s agenda, he’s not someone to play games with when the stakes are sky-high.
Since Austin is the setting, it’s difficult not to reminisce about Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993), and especially when Robert MacDougall graces the screen. He seems like a combination of three characters from that landmark high school comedy: football players Don (Sasha Jenson) and Pink (Jason London) and also Matthew McConaughey’s memorable turn as Wooderson. No, Robert doesn’t declare, “Alright, alright, alright,” but he does deliver a misplaced off-color joke to kick-off his campaign speech.
René Otero leans politically left. After listening to some of his fellow Boys State colleagues opine on conservative positions, he feels isolated. René’s core beliefs seem to conflict with this massive group. He’s also black and mentions, “I’ve never seen so many white people…ever.” Wondering if he’ll fit in, René decides to proudly pronounce his individuality to the audience, and their acceptance becomes an open question.
Steven Garza discovers similar obstacles. Former U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) is one of his favorite speakers, so Steven runs in Democratic circles. He’s also a person of color, and in the previously-mentioned Zoom call, Steven adds, “I felt like a fish out of water, not only as a brown person in a sea of mostly white faces, but also personality-wise.” Soft-spoken and a bit on the shy-side, Steven might not pound his chest and tout his successes, but he carries a quiet confidence and oceans of altruism. When he speaks, it’s from the heart, duly noted by folks on-screen and off-screen.
McBaine and Moss spent plenty of off-screen time to pull this film together. They edited this project for a year and condensed the hours and hours of footage into a tightly-woven 109-minute documentary that plays out like a Hollywood yarn. Indeed, this is on-the-edge-of-your-seat stuff, especially as the election results arrive in the third act’s crescendo. The Federalists and Nationalists soar and suffer through ups and downs, as moments of fair play are balanced by hardball gamesmanship.
Keep in mind, these are 17-year-old kids.
Although Boys States and Girls States exist throughout the U.S., one of the reasons that the filmmakers chose Texas is because in 2017, the noted Lone Star State assembly gained national attention by voting to secede from the Union. Okay, in practical terms, those boys didn’t really create a new law (or break an old one), but are these Boys State teens serious about this program, one that doubles as a sociological Petri dish?
Sure, they learned from “adult” legislators and campaigners, but about 328 million Americans could discover key life lessons from these 1,000 young Texans. At first, Texas Boys State does seem like a battle royale, but it may or may not end that way. Let’s hope that the grown-ups keep the combat to a minimum in November 2020. This critic isn’t too optimistic.
⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: A24