REVIEW: Boys State (2020 – Documentary)

Release Poster – A24 / Apple TV+

The following is a review of Boys State — Directed by Jesse Moss & Amanda McBaine.

Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State is a documentary about an American leadership and citizenship summer program that teaches young Americans about how politics, government, and campaigning works. Although the documentary focuses on a ‘Boys State,’ there are apparently identical summer programs for young women. The documentary focuses on the 2018 Texas Boys State and the gubernatorial campaigns of the competing Texas Boys State parties the Nationalists and the Federalists, during which it becomes clear that young Americans have learned a lot about politics from the difficult and contentious state of American politics.

This is without a doubt the most engaging documentary that I have seen in a very long time. As a politically-interested European who, in University, has had several classes on American history and politics, this documentary was undeniably intriguing. Boys State seems to be an educational summer program but, as it is presented in this documentary, it is also a fascinating and revealing experiment.

Not only does the experiment allow us to get an idea of how young Americans would handle the pressure of politics, but it also reveals the thought-processes of these teenagers. The political platforms of each party are up for debate every year, and this allows ambitious young Americans the opportunity to not only influence the summer program but also the politics of the party to which they are all randomly assigned.

The documentary reveals that the participants at the 2018 Texas Boys State are predominantly caucasian, and, very early on, it becomes clear that the participants lean conservative, or, at the very least, the unchallenged vocal minority does. As the documentary’s most interesting subject Steven Garza, a progressive underdog who runs for governor, points out, he is one of the only progressives on a bus full of ardent conservatives. Garza is one of the young Americans who actually gives you hope. Garza is the son of a Mexican immigrant, and, as becomes increasingly clear over the course of the documentary, he possesses admirable core values that he is willing to march for. It is, honestly, incredible to watch him become more and more extroverted over the course of the documentary, and you truly understand why people start to gravitate towards him as an aspiring public servant.

Some of the other notable individuals in the documentary include René Otero, the progressive and confident Nationalist party chairman who is targeted by people in both parties; Robert MacDougal, a Nationalist who runs against Garza in the race to be their candidate for governor; and Ben Friedman, a driven and conservative double amputee who becomes the Federalist party chairman. The documentary showcases that their experiences during Texas Boys State allowed them to grow as political thinkers, activists, or the like. However, I think it is a shame that Moss and McBaine failed to properly focus on the Federalists’ candidate for governor, Eddy Proietti Conti. In the documentary Ben Friedman outshines Conti, but I would’ve liked to hear directly from Conti in a series of interviews like we hear from Friedman, MacDougal, Otero, and Garza.

What is so discouraging about this documentary is that it reveals that for the politically-interested youths in America, dirty tricks and deception have become essential parts of their political playbook. Influential politicians have previously taken part in Boys State, and if this Texas Boys State experiment is anything to go by, then we may now know that a significant part of the future of American politics, at least in Texas, is hyper-masculine, pro-gun, conservative, and oblivious to the absurdity of discussing abortion legislature without any woman present. It is, frankly, baffling how openly deceptive and dishonest some of these young political minds are. It says a lot about how morally bankrupt modern U.S. politics has become.

One would hope that experiments such as Boys State would facilitate encouraging discussions about the future of the nation, but, if the documentary is anything to go by, it is, in actuality, more of a battleground for future politicians to practice tactics that are morally suspect. This documentary highlights some of the problems with American politics today meanwhile giving us glimpses of hope in the form of René Otero and Steven Garza, who seem to genuinely care about public service.

This is the best documentary film that I have seen thus far in 2020. It is a real shame that a documentary as gripping as Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Boys State is currently on Apple TV+ since it is a streaming service in its infancy that has struggled to capture the interest of audiences around the world. Hopefully, once Apple TV+ gains a sizable audience, Boys State will be properly appreciated. Infuriating but not without hope, Boys State is a fantastic documentary that reveals an eerily accurate microcosm of the state of American politics.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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