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A review of “Boys State”: teenage boys, Texas, and a timeless message about American politics


Every summer, after a competitive interviewing process, thousands of boys and girls coming upon their senior year of high school ship off to the American Legion-sponsored “Boys State” and “Girls State,” a weeklong, educational program with the purpose of teaching young Americans about how their state’s legislation is passed and how elections take place. The goal for many in the program is to be elected the highest official in the group: governor. It’s a pretty mundane concept, to say the least. But what documentary filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine capture following four boys, Ben, Steven, Robert, and René, at Texas Boys State engulfs the viewer in an introspective experience of the American political system and its participants in the A24 film, “Boys State.”

The film succeeds in using a viewer’s potentially-internalized stereotypes about the south against them, setting the stage in Texas with a group of young boys all talking about politics. Based on assumptions, well, you better be ready for talk of guns, life beginning at conception, and a strong sense of patriotism. And, don’t get me wrong, you definitely get that. 

The second the boys file on to the bus, there is Obama slander and praise of Trump. But, with a friendly smile and warm greetings, we meet Steven, who is repping a Beto O’Rourke t-shirt. He looks nice, but after his interview in which he says he entered politics because of Bernie Sanders, the viewer assumes he’s outnumbered and stands no chance against his peers. During a Q&A, the filmmakers themselves even admitted they didn’t see him going far. Yet, he slimly acquires the needed signatures to enter the race for governor. 

Competing against him is Robert, who is charismatic off the bat. He instantly clicks with many of the boys and obtains the signatures needed to run for governor in merely no time as compared to Steven. As he speaks of his time interning for Republican candidates and shows off his guns, a viewer easily writes him off as the average conservative, Texan boy who will probably do well at the convention. 

As Steven and Robert campaign against each other within their party, the Nationalists, we meet René. During a Q&A with the filmmakers and cast, Moss and McBaine actually said René was the only boy asked to be a main subject while filming. This was a right-minded choice, as René wins the Nationalists’ party chairman position on the first day with his impeccable public speaking skills that present his power to control a room. Soon enough, though, he is faced with obstacles as some of the boys quickly turn on him. Someone goes as far as making an “Impeach René” Instagram that posts racist remarks about him, one of the only Black men in attendance. René’s composure is truly tested when the last of the boys goes head-to-head with him.

Ben is a part of the other party within the mock government called the Federalists and is their state party chairman. His first impression on camera shows him as the average patriotic, Texan boy who claims, “we live in the greatest democracy of the world.” Ben decides early on that he cannot win governor, so he settles for party chairman. Viewers see Ben loving the power he has as he stands with a microphone in the front of a room, speaking to everyone in his party and commanding attention. When Ben has to do everything he can to get his governor candidate to win, he attacks René’s strategy by publicly claiming personal attacks are necessary for success. 

“Boys State” presents these four boys and completely rearranges any preconceived notions a viewer could possibly have. Robert is strikingly more moderate than he presents at the conventions. He says, “you cannot win on what you believe,” after lying to the crowd of boys in a red state about being pro-life. He contributes his shortcomings of losing to Steven to his own lack of genuineness. The liberal Steven, too, is able to command a room so well with his sincerity and ability to remain moderate. He gets all the way to the final election for governor before falling short. 

What starts out as a film that scares you with a “Lord of the Flies” type of feeling as young boys compete for leadership turns out to be one of hope. The film reinstills the idea that bipartisanship is a possibility in our divided nation through compromise and stripping free from the stigmas and connotations the parties hold over each other due to harsh alignment. Though filmed in 2018 and made available in 2020, this documentary will be resonating with Americans indefinitely. 

“Boys State” is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release. Film Credits to: Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine.

Featured Image courtesy of The Old Texan via Flickr Creative Commons

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A review of “Boys State”: teenage boys, Texas, and a timeless message about American politics