A thousand young men in Texas have gathered to create their own government and organizationally experience just what it takes to run a campaign. What is revealed in Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss’ staggering new work, is an exacting microcosm of American politics, as it has influenced a new generation of Political Scientists. Many of the young men arrive with their own ideas of how things are done, their own beliefs about how government and country ought to operate, never challenged, and instilled by folks of the same beliefs within their community. As the gubernatorial contest rolls, some participants meld their beliefs into those of the created party. Others stand true to their hearts, not only here for the notoriety of doing the thing, but because they have a deep sense of wrong and right and must practice their beliefs. Some still use the event as something else entirely, to repeat the vicious cycle of political organizing perpetuated by adults, like they are auditioning for a frat house.
Boys State is an annual event held in select states. Famous alumni such as Bill Clinton, Beau Biden, Dick Cheney, Roger Ebert, and Bruce Springsteen have emerged from Boys State competitions. It’s the final moment of youth before teenagers are molded into men and let out to go effect lasting change in the country, and at the dawn of their coming-of-age story, it is both enlightening and terrifying what they produce, in their own diorama of government. The story follows four contestants through the entire course of the race, as they are sectioned off into two parties (Federalists and Nationalists), and must build their own senate, although the doc is naturally most interested in the highest attainable position as Governor, which produces at least one amazing human interest story.
Steven Garza arrives as a fully formed politician. And he is just the kind America needs. Bright and socially aware, Garza’s path to Governorship is anything but guaranteed. Initially, the teens must secure thirty signatures to make the ballot. While other men impress themselves upon the group socially, Steven waits patiently, working toward more meaningful conversations, and genuine support. Surrounded by conservatives, Steven is a lone duck, projecting only his values and the esteem enriched in him by a wonderful family who tell the full story of America. It is rare to be truly inspired by such young men, but Steven is a capital guy, whose honesty and perseverance shine through at every obstacle. When his social presence leaks out from the opposing campaign (which also freely disseminates racist memes), a picture of him at a March for our Lives event nearly stops his campaign dead. Because he is strong and knows what it feels like to overcome such obstacles, Steven continually reshapes and refines his party’s agenda, and comes away looking like a true leader. He gets a little help from friend René Otero — an enormously charismatic speaker with a big heart that never flutters, even as his party tries often to impeach him and muddy his name.
And here’s where it all hits the fan. Many of the boys have learned from what they have seen. They have genuine conversations about the way President Donald Trump won the election. They admire and facilitate his views. It’s all a bit Lord of the Flies. Given free reign and complete political freedom, most attendees would rather Texas secede from the States. They shout for guns and hoot and holler against pro-choice agendas. It’s a tough little world that directly reflects our own. What they’ve learned from their parents. The Federalist party, running against Steven’s Nationalists, take to slimy political memes, disparaging their opposition, and running roughshod with absurd Trumpian logic, playing to the basest instincts of their followers. The behavior and ideas they express, while disturbing, also make a whole lot of sense of the world.
Boys State is an important movie right now. Come November, it may become staggeringly important. It is likely to sweep any awards for documentary the next year. The way Amanda McBain and Jesse Moss have framed their political microcosm is not only prescient and socially necessary, but it plays out like a written film. It has more structure and composition than many planned films. Often, it is so completely absorbing, it never feels like a documentary at all. Perhaps it’s because we know what it is. It captures the fundamental truth of the country’s democratic process. Boys State is American politics.