One thing you can say about “Boys State,” the disconcerting documentary from Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, is that it’s all-American. Few films so accurately capture the polarization of a country that’s as divided politically as our very own. This chilling coming-of-age story gives an insider view of the divisiveness that’s already taken hold of the next generation. It’s so disturbing that it perhaps should be labeled as horror.
Documentarians McBaine and Moss turn their cameras on the 2018 Texas Boys State program, a summer leadership and citizenship program sponsored by the American Legion, where teenage boys gather to build a mock government from scratch. The young men must develop a platform, organize their assigned political party (Nationalists or Federalists), and campaign for the highest “office”: Boys State Governor.
The film highlights a few of the more interesting subjects, zeroing in on four main “characters,” all from very different backgrounds with contrasting viewpoints. It’s political theater played out among a group of seventeen-year-olds. All are highly ambitious, smart, and sophisticated, especially when it comes to playing the government game. You’ll quickly realize your own bias based on your choice of cheering for the level-headed underdog Steven, or succumbing to the glad-handing charms of Robert, or respecting the stone-cold, exploitative Ben.
If you’ve ever wondered what makes the ideal candidate in the eyes of a teenage boy, you’ll get the answer — but you may not like it. Prepare for a roller coaster of emotions, too. I was inspired by Steven and his idealism, only to jump to the next scene and feel disappointment in Ben as he stooped to playing dirty tricks and launching a smear campaign to help his candidate win.
The topic isn’t compelling enough to sustain a full-length documentary, most of the subjects come across as unlikable, entitled little brats, and the co-directors seem to be going through the motions with a lack of creativity. Much of the material could stand to be cut, and there’s a lot of superfluous (and boring) segments that burden the flow of the story. The best parts of the film come late in the game, like the importance of social media to the younger generation, and the filmmakers seem to lack an understanding or willingness to follow the real story. This isn’t a documentary that’s filled with artistry, but it’s an exceptional character study that shows how quickly an extreme division develops between two mock political parties.
Your personal political leanings will come into play as a viewer, too. But hopefully films like “Boys State” will help bridge the growing gap between progressives and conservatives by encouraging those with different beliefs to actually engage with each other in a meaningful way. To that point, this documentary makes an alarming yet encouraging statement about America’s political future.
By: Louisa Moore