In case you were wondering how people like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Madison Cawthorne could get elected to the US Congress, you need look no further than BOYS STATE, the new film by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the couple behind the multiple award-winning 2014 film, THE OVERNIGHTERS.
BOYS STATE follows 1,100 16- and 17-year-old boys who are attending the week-long educational programme organised by the American Legion in Austin, Texas, in the summer of 2018. The goal of the programme is give the teens a taste of how politics works as the boys must work together — without the vitriol and trolling that we all see and hear everyday on social media — to build a representative government from the ground up. There are no reds or blues, Republicans or Democrats, here. Instead, there are Nationalists and Federalists, sides that the boys are assigned to at random, and it’s up to them to decide what their party platforms are. Needless to say, being Texas, hot button issues like the Second Amendment and abortion rank at the top of the list for both parties. (I found it both funny and sad that teenage boys, many of whom are probably still virgins, should have such strong views on women’s reproductive rights.) Secession was a big one, apparently, in 2017, and some of the participants try jumping into that lake this time around too. Moss and McBaine focus their lenses on four boys, two of whom are competing against each other to be their party’s gubernatorial candidate, and two others who are elected as their party’s chairmen. Over the course of the week, the boys wheel and deal, fend off an impeachment, compromise their personal beliefs for the sake of the party, engage in smear tactics, and write and deliver speeches to rally their colleagues behind them.
BOYS STATE is fascinating. It would be too easy to dismiss all the rah-rah patriotism and backroom machinations as being uniquely American because these things happen in every democracy. What the film shows, among other things, is that it’s not always the best or the brightest who rises to the top. It’s the person in the shadows who has the real power. For George W. Bush, that person was Dick Cheney. For Donald Trump, many would argue that it was Mitch McConnell with a lot of help from Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, Cheney is an alumnus of the Boys State programme, as are Bill Clinton, Cory Booker, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bonjovi, Beau Biden, Roger Ebert, disgraced Fox News exec Roger Ailes, actress Abigail Spencer and talk show host Leeza Gibbons. Equally interesting is hearing how the film’s four protagonists feel about politics after this experience. It’s almost enough to fill a cynic with hope for the future.
With its abundance of testosterone-filled young men who make bad choices, BOYS STATE leaves viewers wondering if a female version of this story would play out any differently. (I’m guessing that in Texas, it wouldn’t.) Moss and McBaine had intended to do a companion piece, GIRLS STATE, but the pandemic killed off that plan. The pair is hopeful, though, that they can make the film either this summer or next.
BOYS STATE had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 and, shortly thereafter, A24 and Apple acquired distribution rights to the film for $12 million — the highest price ever paid for a documentary feature from Sundance. It’s available now on Apple TV+. I’ll admit that it’s not for everyone but if you’re a political junkie, it will be compelling to say the least.
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