On the surface, the film comes across as a chaotic coming of age story; however, the documentary’s true depth comes through in it’s use of false male bravado to show the audience the complexities of the U.S political landscape.
The film follows teenagers Steven Garza, Ben Feinstein, René Otero, and Robert MacDougall before taking on their senior year of high school. Still navigating who they are as individuals, the teens enter into the 2018 Boys State. The annual program educates young men about politics by allowing them to participate in an intense, week-long mock government scenario at the local, county, and state levels.
The documentary humanizes the world of politics by evoking sympathy for the positions that politicians may find themselves in through the playful, yet nerve-racking lens of boyhood. This particular viewpoint is achieved by allowing the audience to become immersed in the boys’ personal stories.
Moss and McBaine brilliantly weave in detail from the boys’ compelling backgrounds. Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants with progressive views, suddenly finds himself surrounded by conservatives and faces the prospect of conforming or thriving as an individual.
“They all turned out to be as complicated, interesting, remarkable as we hoped they would be,” Moss said.
Through the boys’ fierce combativeness and willingness to abandon their values and beliefs to please the majority, they inadvertently begin lurking in the underbelly of politics. This dark theme is balanced by the refreshing nature of self-reflection and compromise we see within and between the boys as the week progresses.
Two years later, the teens reflect on their Boys State experience.
“Within the course of a week, people from radically different racial, socioeconomic backgrounds were able to talk to each other and find common ground,” MacDougall said. “That’s something you don’t see in actual real-world politics.”
The film utilizes boyish charm as a vessel for a much deeper conversation about the state of our democracy, by underlining the impact of our current political atmosphere on the next generation.
“What we hoped is this little microcosm of Texas Boys State, which you might be kind of tempted to dismiss, actually contains these powerful forces that we are wrestling with as a country,” Moss said. “We hoped that this film could be a forum to talk about those forces.”
Boys State uses the dynamic between real-world politics and what can be viewed as child’s play to make an otherwise daunting subject more palatable, especially for those who may be hesitant to unpack our nation’s complex political landscape.
BOYS STATE is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release. Now available to stream on Apple TV+.