Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A24 and Apple release the film on Friday, August 14.
Depending on one’s perspective, the American political machine invites both cynical and idealistic interpretations, and “Boys State” embodies both of them. Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s sprawling look at the weeklong Texas event, where 17-year-old boys create their own representational government, provides a compelling window into the cutthroat instincts that can inform the campaigning process, even without the future of the republic at stake.
Juggling several mini-profiles over the course of an election cycle that gets dirty, “Boys State” goes a little too soft on its subjects, attempting a balanced perspective at a moment that demands more partisan insight. Nevertheless, it manages to capture the systematic forces behind American leadership, and why it always seems like such an uphill challenge to put the good guys in charge.
Adults consume such little screen time that the movie may as well be the “Peanuts” of civic lessons. As “Boys State” explains upfront, the veterans association American Legion has assembled the eponymous gathering at states around the country since 1935, during which time alumni have included Dick Cheney and Cory Booker.
That spectrum of famous leaders might suggest that Boys State embraces a bipartisan approach, but the Texas event — at least as the filmmakers’ sprawling cameras find it — unfolds more as a battlefield. With participants assigned to dueling political parties called Federalists and Nationalists, the 1,100 participants are left to their own devices as they assemble campaigns for a range of leadership positions, with a few ambitious kids eyeing the top role of governor.
Moss and McBaine follow four of these enterprising characters as they assemble campaign strategies and argue through ideologies while reflecting on the motivations behind it all. Moss, whose credits include “The Overnighters” and the Netflix series “The Family,” excels at capturing the subtle factors that inform American identity, and “Boys State” works best when exposing the gathering as a hidden force with the potential to shape generations of political careers.
It’s also a testament to the adrenaline rush behind the desire to win. In its breathless opening passage, a thundering soundtrack follows several Boys State candidates for both parties as they speed around the Texas capital, chasing signatures and spouting their priorities, with some participants clearly taking the experience more seriously than others. One candidate seeking support asks a classmate what he’s for, and when the response is “Freedom,” it registers as a punchline. With time, however, it becomes clear that such reductive sentiments inform many of the kids’ way of seeing the world, and “Boys State” doesn’t show the campaigns changing any biases so much as confirming them.
The filmmakers record dramatic campaign speeches with riotous crowds, where issues like gun control and abortions echo real-world talking points in clunky, half-formed argumentation that suggests many of the candidates have simply regurgitated the perspectives they absorb at home. That itself speaks volumes about the cycle of political biases in this country.
However, the inmates aren’t entirely running the asylum. The key figures at the center of “Boys State” all display serious investment in their campaigns, with a remarkable degree of energy and intellectual rigor driving them forward. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work in their favor. Rene Otero, an African American who takes over his party’s leadership early on, faces calls for his impeachment after his rowdy citizens make ludicrous calls for secession. He scores the movie’s most searing condemnation of the racial dynamics in play — “I never seen so many white people ever” — but he’s not alone.
The true hero of “Boys State” is Steven Garza, a gubernatorial candidate born to immigrant parents who faces xenophobic negative campaigning designed to steamroll his ambition. Despite all the pushback, his resilience provides an emotional arc that gives the movie its most powerful passages. At the same time, Garza’s ambitions are offset by those of Ben Feinstein, who begins the movie as an underdog figure — a double-amputee eager to find his purpose — before turning into something of a villain, more committed to the win-at-all-costs ethos than any moral imperatives.
As the movie builds out these various characters, it settles into a sprawling series of vignettes, some more engaging than others, and yet some aspect of its portraiture feels incomplete. In meetings between the two parties, the filmmakers witness snippets of the ambivalence from participants less compelled to chase leadership roles (one makes a motion to ban Hawaiian pizza) but “Boys State” never devolves into a “Lord of the Flies”-like tale of social collapse. (Where are the wild parties?) It also evades some of the uglier forces at work, hinting at racist sentiments but never calling them out directly, and dodging much discussion of the political reality just outside the frame. And there’s little mention of Girls State, or what the complete absence of women does to skew the way things turn out.
However, there’s a certain intrigue to the uglier aspects of these races that the filmmakers choose not to include. Given that this all takes place in Texas — a state that might one day turn purple, or even blue, but still exudes a deep red hue — “Boys State” diagnoses the essence of that divide by showing the extent that political biases inform the status quo, and how that can lead to campaign strategies devoid of any agenda aside from maintaining power. As Otero concludes, following a messy series of developments, “I don’t think being a fantastic politician is a compliment.”
Garza is more optimistic, emerging from the experience ready to take his battle into a genuine career, and his story allows the movie to avoid an entirely pessimistic conclusion. Instead, the filmmakers illustrate that governmental power is a fickle thing, prone to exploitation and good will alike, depending on who decides to pursue its offices.
That’s either a savvy means of diagnosing the problem with today’s divisive moment or a keen illustration of why Americans are perpetually screwed by their leaders. Either way, the movie has just enough intrigue to hint at the potential for a “7 Up” approach by following its subjects through their political ambitions in the years ahead. The whole story is unwritten: Because “Boys State” doesn’t take sides, it leads to the open-ended conclusion that its subjects could either fix the country, or keep fighting through the wreckage with no end in sight.
“Boys State” premiered in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.