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September 28, 2020

“Boys State”: If William Golding Had Cameras


"Boys State," winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, follows four ambitious participants of the 2018 conference from different geographic, political, and demographic backgrounds.

Courtesy of The New York Times

What do you get when you send 1,000 17-year-old boys from across Texas to the state capitol to construct a democratic government from the ground up? One year after the highly publicized passing of articles of secession by Texas Boys State participants, filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss made their way to the Lone Star State to find out. 

Founded by associates of the American Legion in 1935 as a bulwark against socialist youth programs, Boys State is a selective weeklong summer program that attempts to teach young men (there is a separate program for young women) about the operation of local and state governments in the United States. Participants are randomly assigned into one of two political parties and work to construct party platforms, pass bills in the legislature, and run for office. 

Boys State, winner of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, follows four ambitious participants of the 2018 conference from different geographic, political, and demographic backgrounds. Steven is the quiet, principled son of immigrants, determined from the outset to win the governorship through a strategy of individual connection and earnest dialogue. At first he struggles to acquire enough signatures to make the Nationalist Party primary ballot, but after a series of impassioned speeches he enters the primary runoff with a commanding first-ballot lead over Robert, a boisterous private-school student from Austin who dreams of attending West Point. Robert initially comes off as someone who attempts to coast to success through charisma and appeals to the base instincts of the largely conservative audience; individual interviews with him, however, show another side to his personality. Robert explains that his personal beliefs are much more liberal than he lets on in his speeches, but believes that someone who shares his beliefs wouldn’t make it very far in Boys State, suggesting a rather cynical view of politics, one that he himself criticizes. Steven’s ultimate victory over Robert in the primary stands out in the film’s underlying narrative about the nature of American politics: that cooperation and bipartisanship are their own ends to be aspired towards. Quickly reconciling, Steven and Robert come together to focus their campaign against the Federalists. 

Ben, who is first introduced via his love for Ronald Reagan, initially plans to run for governor but soon realizes his personality and disposition give him a better chance of success working behind the scenes. The only major film participant assigned to the Federalist Party, he soon assumes a Dick Cheney-style role as chair of his party and campaign strategist for the Federalist’s gubernatorial candidate. Ben finds his foil in René, a liberal Chicago transplant and party chair of the opposing Nationalist Party. René, the only participant that the filmmakers did not meet before the event, immediately makes his presence felt in the caucus room and on-screen. Although his ability to force cooperation brings support from a vast majority of his party, René continually faces challenges to his leadership from within his ranks, many of which are rooted in his identity as one of the few people of color at Texas Boys State. As the gubernatorial race heats up, Ben exploits the Nationalist Party’s internal strife through public accusations that René is biased in his role as debate moderator, and an anonymous online meme campaign that degenerates into racist attacks against René (which Ben is quick to denounce). 

The Federalist candidate, supported by Ben, ultimately prevails over Steven in the event-wide gubernatorial race. Heartfelt scenes of the participant’s reaction to their respective victories or defeats precede the film’s conclusion. The film ends with Steven’s impassioned speech at the Texas Democratic Party Convention about overcoming partisanship and ideological labels. 

While the actual results of Boys State were beyond the filmmakers’ control, the editing and narrative structure of the film suggest that their sympathies tend to lie with a less cynical outlook, one that believes in politics as more than opposed interest groups exerting power over one another. Of the two main narrative arcs, the first—the primary race between Steven and Robert—seems to support this view. Steven begins as an underdog and ultimately triumphs in the primary through his personal integrity and genuine commitment to his values. However, the second narrative arc, the post-primary election roughly revolving around Ben and René’s strategies, suggests the opposite conclusion. Politics as shared discourse is replaced with politics as military strategy. 

Through no fault of their own, the participants of Boys State inherit a flawed system: They are automatically assigned into two opposing parties; there are institutional constraints that they must abide by; and victory is treated as its own end. A view of politics with limited imagination is built into the very structure of the event. Part of this is no doubt pedagogical in purpose, meant to reflect the existing state of American politics, regrettable as it may be. In an interview forum with the directors and participants of Boys State, several critiques of Boys State as an institution were brought up. The obvious problems of making a separate program for women, the overrepresentation of rural participants (which in Texas also means white and conservative participants), and other critiques were all raised. 

The ability of the film to properly wrestle with these critiques is limited. Shot on location with a fleet of camera crews following the participants through the chaos of overachieving high school boys, Boys State is a prime example of cinema verité. There are individual interviews for some participants, but those interviews are also shot on site and only capture in-the-moment feelings. In an interview, McBaine and Moss pointed out that the film took a week to shoot and a year to edit. 

Putting aside critiques of the film, many of which are part of the nature of the medium, Boys State is a riveting film with compelling characters that, while perhaps unsure of itself politically, usefully shines a light on the real origins of political polarization in the United States. Extending the film’s effectiveness beyond itself requires the viewer to be convinced that Texas Boys State is a microcosm for national politics, something successfully achieved through careful editing and a unique narrative structure. 

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