Politics is inspirational. Politics is dirty. Politics is about public service. Politics is also about self-interest. Sometimes it offers a hopeful outlook—or a sinister bent.
Whether you’re a political junkie or one who’s anti-politics and couldn’t care less about it, there’s a common understanding that politicians have mastered the art of politics. They have the power to make you believe that they are either for you or against you. The truth can be so easily distorted, so easily malleable, who’s to say what’s foul play?
In comes Boys State, the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the film is an electrifying snapshot of the American political system, in all it’s glory, in all it’s shame.
The film explores a week-long experiment in self-governance through a mock system of government. Essentially, 1,100 teenage boys are divided into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. They are tasked with debating controversial stances (gun control and abortion being hot topics), enacting bills, coming up with a party platform, running political campaigns, holding primaries and a general election to select leaders, with state governor being the highest office.
For context, since 1935, the American Legion is responsible for running the Boys State mock government program. The film begins with a George Washington quote, “[Political] parties are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” Washington warned about the rise of political parties and the negative effect it could have on the fabric of democracy. Reading that today, it mostly aligns to how politicians would easily choose party over country.
During the opening credits we see a photo slideshow of prominent alumni—from President Bill Clinton to Vice President Dick Cheney to Senator Cory Booker to Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito and even Rush Limbaugh. With those opening credits, the documentary smartly hypes up the film, indicating the stakes are high. Better buckle up and enjoy the ride. While the Boys State program doesn’t guarantee a future in politics, it definitely instills the little bug for power.
The film follows a number of boys: Steven Garza, the son of immigrants and first in his family to graduate from high school who becomes gubernatorial candidate for the Nationalist party; Ben Feinstein, an amputee with a reverence for Ronald Reagan (he even has a doll of the former president saying, “The harder the conflict, the most glorious the triumph”) who successfully becomes party chair for the Federalists; Robert MacDougall, a total bro who’s in it to play the game and win the governor run for the Nationalists; René Otero, former Black Chicago resident who’s unapologetically liberal and goes through a rocky party chair mandate in the Nationalist party; and Eddy Proietti Conti, a clean-cut jock who’s compared to Ben Shapiro in ideals and becomes the Federalist Party’s candidate for governor.
All boys are from different socioeconomic backgrounds and differ in lived experiences, but what will matter in the mock self-governing experiment is how good they are in communicating their ideas and policies, and how talented they are at convincing their constituents that though they might not agree on all stances, they are still looking to fully represent them. Pure politics at play.
The subjects in the film are not caricatures of an archetype or simply one-dimensional. They are three-dimensional teenagers who are living in a world where politics seems to exploit the divisiveness of a country, fanning the flames of hate, all for the sole aim of winning and stay in power.
At some point during the film, Ben Feinstein, says, “A message of unity, as good as it sounds, is not winning anyone any elections.” It’s terrifying how accurately he understands the power of campaign strategy, voter behavior and perception, and the political temperature of the country. He’s not wrong. It’s how we got 2016 in the first place, and everything that came after that.
But he also gets how tactics can make or break campaigns, the advantage of social media, and the power of “the spin.” Whether or not you agree with the tactics he employed and the way he runs a campaign, he’s level-headed enough to know the strengths and weaknesses of his party, his candidate, and his own. He plays the deck he’s dealt to the best of his ability. We see Ben as a talented leader who will stop at nothing to see his candidate win.
Somebody who also seems to comprehend how politics aren’t necessarily a “morals” game is Robert. While he performs a hyper-masculine version of a teenage boy, one who advocates for rowdiness, macho behavior, and conservative values, he actually confesses to be a progressive. He goes as far as to say that he knows he’s in Texas, he knows he was going to be in an environment with boys who mostly come from conservative homes and, by default, will most likely practice or, at least, be receptive to those same values. He arrives with preconceived notions of how his fellow teenage boys will think and vote. He’s in for a wake up call that neither he, nor the audience, might expect.
Nowadays, Texas is not the reliable red state we’ve all grown up knowing. Little by little, the state is becoming more and more purple. Nobody is more a testament to that than René Otero. He doesn’t try to hide his progressive ideals. In fact, he flaunts them. He jokingly admits to never have seen “so many white people before.” Because he’s Black, René knows how the system already puts him at a disadvantage. He’s aware he has to work twice as hard as his white counterparts. He doesn’t have the luxury to err, sidestep. He has to be smart about how he’s going to present himself if he wants a shot at joining leadership and constructing a government. “I feel like everybody has a secret underlying need for bipartisanship.” René, the rebel he is, doesn’t surrender at the thought of bipartisanship calls, which will prove to be his Achilles heel.
But if there’s a boy who carries the weight of the film on his shoulders is Steven Garza. Humble and unassuming, he’s a talented speaker. Never fuddling his words, knowing how to string different ideas and delivering them with a cadence that keeps you at the edge of your seat, Garza is the underdog you’re rooting for throughout the film. A Bernie Sanders supporter at heart, a boy who has a deep passion for public service, and one who is fully aware of the pain and sacrifice his ancestors experienced to get him to where he is today, he’s the epitome of the modern immigrant story —the American dream, if ever there was one— live and in the flesh.
In an interview with POV Magazine, the directors opened up about the casting process, what what they were looking for in subjects to follow in the film, and what fascinated them about the boys. When it comes to Steven Garza, they expressed nothing but respect and awe. “When we met Steven, he was in an orientation amongst a bunch of other boys. We were drawn to him in a quiet way, but we certainly did not know that he could give a speech like that until he turned it on at Boys State. Before that, when you see him gathering signatures, he’s very modest,” Jesse said.
“We were worried for Steven on day one. He’s good at retail politics one-on-one, but we didn’t know what he was capable of doing to a crowd. When he stood up and gave a speech that day, it was exciting. For us and, I think, everybody in the room and hopefully [watching] the film, you feel that too. ‘There you are. There’s your boy.’ It was exciting,” Amanda continued.
The film’s third act, though predictable, is still a spectacle to watch. It’s infuriating, moving and tender all at once. How do you measure loss? Can you gather up to pick up the pieces and start over?
Let’s be honest: both Steven and René make Boys State a film that goes beyond teenage boys playing politics, goes beyond mock trials of dirty campaign tactics, goes beyond a winner and losers game.
Even though this film was shot months before 2020, we interpret it and look at it through the lens of today. With the crazy year we’ve had, these two boys represent the Black and Brown communities that are often left outside politics, those who aren’t given a voice, those who are made to be invisible. Steven and René’s journey means so much more than any white boy can begin to even try to fathom. Biases are placed on them and they have to overcome that, and then reconcile with the fact that they have to fight that their entire lives. Systemic racism, racial injustice.
The documentary doesn’t tackle this head on, however. Yes, we see some racist diatribes thrown out by some boys, but it’s not thoroughly or fully explored. René certainly acknowledges it, but we’re left to put the pieces together. Had the filmmakers made it a priority to discuss those heavily sensitive themes, it would’ve elevated the documentary to a whole other level. While our subjects might understandably be on the younger side, they surely could have still discussed their stances. The are Generation Z. They are a voting bloc in the upcoming election. They can be our next leaders. This was a missed opportunity for sure.
Notwithstanding, in the process of following the subjects at Boys State, the filmmakers have created a deeply vivid representation of contemporary American politics, how they play out, how they lift up or shun voices out. At times grim, at times hopeful, the film is a reminder of how politics is a never-ending battle where resiliency may not always be prized, but it will definitely never be forgotten.
Boys State is available for streaming now on Apple TV+.