Boys State continues in the tradition of documentaries that depict children in unusual competitions. In this film, you can see the DNA of Spellbound, Rock School, and Mad Hot Ballroom. There is the usual mix of victories and defeats, with the filmmakers following a few key personalities throughout. The difference is that Boys State follows a political competition, one where a group of boys spend a week campaigning on a mock election. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine cannot decide whether their story is inspirational or a dire warning of what is to come, so their lack of focus muddles how we are supposed to feel.
The American Legion sponsors Boys State, a statewide summer citizenship program where teenage boys congregate to hold office, develop political platforms, and vote for key positions. This is purely an intellectual exercise, since there is no expectation these boys will deliver on any of their promises (there is also a separate Girls State, but the filmmakers decline to follow them). It is 2018 in Texas, and the two parties are either “Nationalist or “Federalist.” The film makes no attempt to acknowledge the historical significance of either label, nor do the boys tie their platforms to the central tenets of federalism or nationalism. That this goes unacknowledged is bizarre – a simple aside would have sufficed – and the omissions only pile on from there.
A few key figures emerge. Steven is one key figure: soft-spoken, dedicated, and unabashedly liberal (he is seen wearing a Beto t-shirt). Another is Rene, a technocrat with a gift for oratory who correctly (albeit cynically) sees that ideology is pointless in this exercise. I highlight these young men because they are rare people of color in a sea of white faces. The group in the 2018 Texas Boys State is overwhelmingly white, and many regard Ben Shapiro as a key influence. They adopt his kind of pseudo-intellectual posturing, bulldozing over nuance and reason in any debate, and the “platform” under consideration has a reactionary, misogynist streak to it.
The handling of the material is the issue, not the material itself. Moss and McBaine barely investigate parallels between this election and Trumpian racism. All the meaty insight is incidental, which is shame since, well, there is nothing terribly interesting about these boys. It is not their fault: politics is about the manipulation of power, and they have none. A campaign is about tying a platform to candidate, yet these boys come with little personal history or experience. What they have is a truncated opportunity to mimic/exploit the American electorate’s worst impulses, and we can already see teens do that all over reddit (the kids discuss dank memes as if they’re serious opposition research). A little more context would have gone a long way. I’m sure the American Legion officials, for example, have something to say about the event has changed over the past few years.
Like other documentaries that ultimately become failed opportunities, the frustrating thing is the fleeting moments of brilliance. I don’t want to spoil the final election results, but it leads to a self-effacing scene where these boys genuinely praise each other’s sincerity. The scene is a bit arbitrary, since the vast majority of what we see is transparently cynical. While the filmmakers follow the key players, there is little sense of what the rank and file accomplish during this week, beyond cheering over campaign speeches. I appreciate that the American Legion makes time for a talent show, and although that might be a necessary distraction for boys without much to do during summer camp, the film’s running time is limited.
Boys State is what happens when filmmakers hear about an interesting concept, then count on that interest doing the work for them. There is no clear point of view in their edit, so the film is a Rorschach test over how you feel about the current state of American politics. This film does not paint a portrait with evocative color, and instead smudges familiar shades of red and blue.
Boys State is now available on Apple TV+.