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In moments of deep despair, when it seems like nothing will ever get better, we can always tap into one particular reserve: our hope that future generations will be smarter than we are and be able to solve the immense problems we’ve left them. Boys State may disavow you of that notion, as it shows that the next wave of political leaders are no more equipped to deal with the failures of our system than we are.
This hard lesson is exposed through the chronicling of an annual camp for ambitious, politically minded teenagers. Every state except Hawaii has a Boys State program, and while it may be unfamiliar to many viewers, it has deep roots in our political system. Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Samuel Alito, and Cory Booker are all alumni of the immersive, weeklong program sponsored by the American Legion in which high school students practice the art of politics by forming political parties and electing state leaders. The election is the program’s final event. The skill of actual governing is not part of the curriculum. Instead, in this film, conservative youths at Texas Boys State learn to hustle, negotiate, and mud-sling to defeat their opponents.
The participants can run for anything, from state policy chair to senator, but filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (The Overnighters) wisely zoom in on the race for governor, the highest office in Boys State, which pits a well-drawn, charismatic cast of characters against each other in fascinating ways. There’s Ben, a brash, right-wing boy who lost his legs to meningitis as a child and plans to run for governor, but finds his niche as a pugnacious campaign manager; Steven, an idealistic Bernie Sanders supporter who struggles to keep his liberal politics hidden from the largely conservative electorate; Robert, a long-haired quarterback type who seems to have stepped out of a Richard Linklater movie; and René, a Black Chicagoan who has moved to Texas but has no qualms about standing out in the crowd. “I’ve never seen so many white people ever,” he smirks to the camera. Someone had to say it.
Boys State flirts with indicting our political system and critiquing modern masculinity (the primal, guttural chants that one party ritually adopts are unnerving), but the filmmakers smartly resist the urge to the widen their scope and draw explicit connections to the world outside the camp. We can do that on our own. The film serves as a riveting narrative in its own right, but it’s impossible to miss the parallels to our broader political movements. It’s never heavy-handed, but it reminds us that the kids are watching what the grown-ups are doing.
Consider how it plays out: In one primary, the most promising candidate is plagued by evidence, dug up by his opponent, that he marched in a gun control rally. He survives the primary, but emerges damaged for the general election. Meanwhile, another candidate, losing badly in the general, enacts a scorched-earth strategy, wildly accuses the opposing party chair of using his influence in setting the rules of debate to conspire against his candidate. The claim of institutional bias strikes a deep chord with the voters.
It’s a chilling reproduction of our failing political state, but it’s somehow a joy to watch. The teenagers are so vulnerable that even the most vicious among them are a little sympathetic. They’re all just trying to figure it out. They imitate their political heroes at the podium, but they lack polish and stumble over their words. It’s endearing. Boys State is a rarely compelling work: a riveting political documentary and a heartfelt coming-of-age drama, with only the future of our country hanging in the balance.
Boys State streams Friday on Apple TV.