Despite knowing of it my entire life, ￼I was amazed to find out how little I knew about Boys and Girls State. Founded in 1935 and 1937, these leadership and citizenship programs are held each summer in nearly every state across America. For a week high school students participate in the formation of city, county, and state governments similar in function to the U.S. systems. They are broken up into two parties who then elect their leaders and develop their party platform from scratch. It all culminates in the election of one student to the highest office of governor. It’s really quite fascinating.￼
The Sundance hit “Boys State” gives a eye-opening look inside the program. In the film documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss follow the roughly 1,000 boys who attended the 2018 Boys State in Texas. They concentrate mostly on a handful of ambitious teens from very different backgrounds who arrive in Austin and are immediately baptized into the intense and hyper-competitive political event. The boys are assigned to either the Federalist or Nationalist party. They pick the office they want to run for and then begin creating policy and organizing their campaigns.
But the most compelling thing about the documentary is how effectively McBaine and Moss show Boys State as a microcosm of modern-day politics. It takes no time exposing how quickly partisanship takes hold and how fast the love of power and position can lead to moral compromise. Through the boys and the preconceived notions they bring, ￼we witness how deeply the flaws of our current political philosophies are carved into the minds of our youth. And oh how quickly independent thought is tossed aside while attempts at working together and meeting people in the middle are shown to be futile and unfruitful.
Of course “Boys State” does have its own biases and it reaches a point where it begins pointedly shaping its heroes and villains. The movie sets up a boy named Steven as its veritable ‘good-guy’ – a friendly, good-natured young man who is mature beyond his years. He’s the son of a once undocumented Mexican immigrant and is truly inspired to serve his country. ￼But in reality even he is playing the game – an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter moving to the middle to secure some red state conservative votes during his run for governor. It emphasizes what another boy sadly and succinctly reveals, “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart.”
Your response to “Boys State” ￼may be influenced by your own political sway or personal party allegiance￼. By the end some will be left feeling inspired and optimistic while others are likely to feel discouraged and even more cynical than before. Whether intentional or not, in that sense the movie even uses the audience’s response as indicative of how bitterly divided our country is at the moment.
For me the most disheartening thing about “Boys State” is that most of what we see mirrors our existing political climate rather than give hope that change will come with the next generation. And how sad it is to see young people already compromising their convictions and ideals for political gain. On the positive side it’s good to see intelligent young men with such ambition and drive. If only they had a more respectable political model to follow. “Boys State” is now available on Apple TV+.
VERDICT – 4 STARS