Boys State begins with a famous quote from George Washington’s farewell address about the potential danger of political parties, warning the American people that the system which helped the country get its start could just as easily be its downfall. While watching the film, it’s hard not to consider another infamously ominous warning – this one from Jurassic Park gamekeeper Robert Muldoon, about velociraptors: “That one… when she looks at you, you can see she’s working things out.”
Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ festival darling documentary, which finally hits Apple TV+ this weekend, is a sure-to-be future classic, both a microcosm of America’s current national politics and a startling portrait of how those politics are shaping the next generation of young leaders. You can see the ricocheting effects of punditry and political division on impressionable young minds, and also undeniable examples of future politicians, who will take those messages with them – for good or ill – as they climb the ladder of success.
Run by the American Legion, Boys State (and the female-focused Girls State) operates across the country. The program gives teenagers from across a given locale the opportunity to gather for a week at a state capitol to form a kind of mock government, complete with political parties (assigned by the American Legion as Nationalist and Federalist), platforms, and candidates for office. Boys State focuses on Texas’ event, and several of its driving characters. There’s Rene, the outspoken, world-wise Nationalist party head; Steven, the Nationalist party’s candidate for governor; Ben, a whip-smart Federalist party leader with a terrifying strategic mind; and Robert, a hopeful Nationalist gubernatorial candidate who’s trying his best to figure out the balance of sincerity and charisma that will help him win.
All of the kids are fascinating to watch as they consider the mix of personal beliefs, group dynamics, and personal backgrounds that could determine their failure or success, for different reasons. Rene, with his rock-solid convictions and withering looks, is a sardonic voice of reason. Steven, the soft-spoken child of an immigrant mom (and on track to be the first high school grad in his family), is the movie’s tender heart. Gun-toting West Point hopeful Robert is a character study in white privilege. Ben is a Machiavellian madman who may seem like a teenage politics nerd at the film’s start, but ends it as a low-key villain.
In the midst of this, McBaine and Moss also document the makeshift society that the Boys State event creates, building its own strange world in the space of a single week. This world comes complete with sophomoric antics – there’s a contingent of boys whose sole platform is state secession, just for the hell of it – and sitcom archetypes (there’s always one kid who wants to play Careless Whisper on the sax at the talent show). The event may only last seven days, but by the end of the film, the characters and social structure are so well developed that it feels more like it’s been going on for six months.
Boys State is an outstanding piece of documentary filmmaking, not only because of the characters and events it depicts, but because of the cultural moment it captures. McBaine and Moss’ honest, observant movie recognizes leadership attitudes in its teenage subjects that are shaped indelibly by current public figures, from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump to Ben Shapiro. The directors show us young minds at work – some altruistically, some selfishly – driven by the forces that have defined what success looks like in the public eye. There’s still a lot of room for these kids to grow, which is both a hopeful and cautiously foreboding statement. What’s obvious is that the film’s subjects will carry the lessons they learn for the rest of their lives.
“Boys State” is now streaming on Apple TV+.