Producers: Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss Directors: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine Cast: Steven Garza, René Otero, Ben Feinstein and Robert MacDougall Distributors: Apple TV+/A24 Films
Given the deplorable state of politics in this country, one might harbor a hope that immersion in a “mock election” among teenagers would raise one’s spirits about the future. To be sure, on the one hand, “Boys State” offers examples of high-mindedness and principle among some of the participants, and those are heartening. But on the other it demonstrates that the lessons of duplicity and dirty tricks practiced so frequently on the national scene have been learned well by the younger generation, and that’s depressing. So watching the documentary by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine is a roller-coaster affair—not unlike watching returns roll in on CNN on election night.
The annual event followed here—though due to the current pandemic it was conducted virtually this year—represents the 2017 installment of a program sponsored by the Texas branch of the American Legion as a means of teaching teens about the practice of democracy. Youngsters from all regions of the state vie to be selected to travel to Austin, where the thousand or so participants are arbitrarily divided into two parties, the Federalists and Nationalists, each of which develop its platform and chooses candidates for various offices, the most prestigious being the governorship. (There are separate sections for boys and girls. Only the male half of the program is covered here.)
As shown here—in a form that must have taken a great deal of paring down of cinematographer Thorsten Thielow’s footage by the directors and editor Jeff Gilbert—the picture becomes a contest between Steven Garza, a chubby Latino kid of modest means but big dreams, and a slick fellow named Eddie. They become the gubernatorial candidates of their respective parties after struggling to gain signatures promoting themselves for the office they seek.
Steven, whose mother was once undocumented, gets far more coverage than Eddie does. He barely secures the signatures he needs for the governor’s election on the Nationalist side, and then finds himself in a race against Robert MacDougall, a good-looking, ambitious jock who, in one of his confessional-style interviews, admits being pro-choice but vocally anti-abortion in order to secure votes. When Steven wins the nomination, largely on the basis of an impassioned speech, Robert admits he’s lost to the better man and becomes an ardent supporter.
In addition to their extended coverage of these two Nationalists, the makers concentrate on a third representative of that party—René Otero, a Chicago transplant who’s elected, on the basis of his charisma and take-charge attitude, as the party chairman. In overseeing the group’s assemblies, he puts down silly proposals—like a motion to secede from the Union—and earns the ire of some, who try to impeach him.
On the Federalist side, Eddie gets relatively little screen time. Instead the focus is on the party chair Ben Feinstein, an interesting fellow who lost the lower half of his legs to illness and walks on prosthetics. He’s a political junkie, and after failing to succeed in his drive for the party’s gubernatorial nomination becomes the party chair, taking charge of Eddie’s campaign and using tactics that can best be described as unseemly. When it’s revealed the Steven participated in a gun-control march, he jumps on the revelation, which threatens to destroy his chances. In his confessional interviews, he’s unapologetic about the tactics he employs—he’s a real politician, not a vacuous nonentity like Eddie or liberal softie like Steven. And he relishes the sense of control.
It’s easy to see where the filmmakers’ preferences lie, and while it wouldn’t be fair to reveal how the election turns out, you can guess. They follow the results with reaction footage of the primary players and post-credit clips about the later “careers” of some of them.
It’s easy to see “Boys State” as a wry microcosm of the US political system. And like that system, it alternately uplifts and infuriates. Most importantly, for the most part it holds one’s interest, whether you’re bemused or horrified by the goings-on in Austin.