In response to the 2016 presidential election, a new documentary from A24 and Apple turns to America’s youth to explain how we got here and where we go next. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss followed 1,000 sweaty, hormonal teenage boys during the American Legion’s week-long civics camp to figure out if the kids are alright. Boys State is an uncomfortable glimpse at partisan politics tinged with an unnatural concentration on toxic masculinity in adolescence.
The American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary have offered the Boy State and Girls State leadership programs in almost every state since 1937. The programs, which occur during the summer for incoming seniors, reflect state government. Boys and girls run for office, hold elections, and eventually legislate. Boys State follows the 2018 Texas Boys State event, featuring two gubernatorial candidates and two political organizers.
The program divides its participants into two agenda-less parties: the Federalists and Nationalists. Ben Feinstein, a white, right-leaning double-amputee, is drafted into the Federalists. Ben secures a position in the party’s leadership, creates a party platform, backs his ideal gubernatorial candidate in the party’s primary, and strategizes. René Otero, a Black, left-leaning Chicago native, takes on a similar role in the Nationalist party. With the parties at ideological odds, the fireworks begin.
Director of Photography Thorsten Thielow provides stately cinematography from multiple cameras. McBaine and Moss fully characterize at least four documentary subjects, making effective use of their access to the boys and their youthful backroom dealings. Besides Ben and René, Boys State follows the Latino, Bernie Sanders-supporting Steven Garza and the white, familiar Texas teen Robert MacDougall, who run in opposition for the Nationalist nomination for governor. Eventually, liberals will find themselves rooting for Steven while conservatives will be drawn to Ben.
Boys State focuses the entirety of its 109-minute runtime on the horse race, and like the American populace, it ignores the ensuing legislation. Consequently, the 2017 Texas Boys State group opted to secede from the United States. Devoting 10 minutes to the legislative products of the 2018 election winners would’ve clarified the values and ideals of the 2018 group.
While Texas is almost purple-ish, American men and women are more politically divided than ever. Boys State is a not-so-gentle reminder of the gender disconnect. Although the boys generally believe in mainstream ideas like common-sense gun legislation, challenging one another’s masculinity with the unbridled freedom to do whatever the hell they want regardless of the consequences toward others is often enough to make them one-up each other in the other direction. Legal rocket launchers, for instance. (A sequel about Girls State is reportedly in the works.)
In interviews, Robert decries dishonesty to get into office and dishonesty in office before deploying those same tactics in an effort to beat Steven. Ben wants to win at all costs. Whether those impulses are learned behaviors or hard-wired into human nature, the results are the same. The power of McBaine and Moss’s documentary is in breaking down tribalism in America before forcing us back to our respective corners for another bout. But as in American politics, the sides aren’t playing by the same rules, or even the same game.