Boys State is an illuminating portrait of the ills of the American electoral process, but somewhat undermines its own power with idealistic platitudes.
We live in a politically polarized time, a fact which we are reminded of nearly every time we turn on the TV or engage with social media. The two major political parties in the United States have never seemed more starkly opposed (or at least that’s what they tell you in their campaign handouts), with Democrats and Republicans pitted in a battle for power while the people they ostensibly represent are left behind. It is into this contentious fray that Boys State, the new documentary by Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) and Amanda McBaine, attempts to wade, by examining the annual Boys State conference in Texas. Sponsored by the American Legion, Boys State (and its sister event, Girls State) brings teenage boys together from across the nation to simulate our nation’s electoral process by dividing them into two parties (the Nationalists and the Federalists) and holding mock campaigns through which the boys develop platforms and run for state and local offices, ultimately vying to get one of their candidates elected as Governor of Boys State. The idea, according to organizers, is to foster community and teach these boys how to network and work together to achieve a greater goal — to essentially overcome the perceived barriers of their parties and reach across the aisle to get things done.
Yet the results seem to run counter to the experiment’s stated goals. With such prominent graduates as Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Tom Cotton, Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, Samuel Alito, and Steve Doocy, it’s fair to wonder if the experiment hasn’t been an outright failure, reinforcing the very partisanship it claims to be obliterating. The young men of the 2018 class depicted in Boys State are quick to adopt hyper-conservative, nationalist policies, often taking hardline stances against gun control, abortion, and immigration to rally their constituents and put opponents on the defensive. The few voices of reason (in this case two students of color, Steven Garza and René Otero) are shouted down and in some cases mercilessly bullied with racist rhetoric, which their opponents dismiss as just the way the political process works. And while they’re not wrong in that, one can’t help but wonder how an organization seemingly built to counteract those notions seems instead to be reinforcing them. Boys State is an often fascinating interrogation of the American political system and the roots of division — a kind of Lord of the Flies for American democracy.
Yet, despite opening with a stark warning from George Washington about the dangers of political parties, Boys State seems to wave off the darker questions it raises with some vague, middle-of-the-road, Obama-esque platitudes about hope for the future — all this when nothing we’ve just seen is in any way hopeful. The idealistic young men who speak from the heart without resorting to dirty tactics and vicious mudslinging are, of course, soundly defeated by their opponents’ fearmongering, lying, and unabashed alt-right rhetoric. If anything, Boys State functions as an indictment of our entire political system, and its lofty aspirations to find a few diamonds in the rough are not enough to hide the fact that it paints an unrelentingly bleak portrait of American capitalism. Its attempts at idealism are completely incongruous to what we’ve just witnessed, making for an inadvertently potent argument against the very electoralism whose virtues it is attempting to extoll. Boys State desperately wants to give the impression that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that enough of the kids are all right and can change the course of our nation. But in reality, the true takeaway here is that we are deeply, deeply fucked.
You can current stream Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State on Apple TV+.