Boys State Review

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Series: Boys State

Where You Can Stream It: Apple TV+

The Pitch: In Boys State, a thousand Texas high school seniors gather for an elaborate mock exercise: building their own state government. The film closely tracks the escalating tensions that arise within a particularly riveting gubernatorial race, training their cameras on unforgettable teenagers like Ben, a Reagan-loving arch-conservative who brims with confidence despite personal setbacks, and Steven, a progressive-minded child of Mexican immigrants who stands by his convictions amidst the sea of red. In the process, they have created a complex portrait of contemporary American masculinity, as well as a microcosm of our often dispiriting national political divisions that nevertheless manages to plant seeds of hope.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: In addition to the last four years of American governance being an absolute clusterfuck, the year 2020 was especially wrought with political turmoil due to the 2020 election cycle. Though you’re probably tired of all the bipartisan bickering mudslinging, allow me to implore you to endure a little bit more of it by digging into this documentary that illustrates how the state of our government and political system has an important influence on young minds. And while much of the nightmare that has unfolded over four years has bolstered some of the worst tendencies in political discourse, there’s always hope for the future. Read More »

“That’s politics … I think,” remarks Robert MacDougall, one of the subjects of Boys State, to the filmmakers off-screen. The line encapsulates the dual nature of the documentary, now streaming on Apple TV+, as both a potential microcosm for American political campaigning … or just a discrete experience worth examining for its own merits.

Documentarians Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s observed and narrativized feature examines the eponymous citizenship program, a week-long conference of mock governance and electioneering, during its 2018 iteration with Texas teenage boys. It’s easy to get caught up in the film’s irresistible characters: the realpolitik of René Otero, the shock and awe of Ben Feinstein, the relational authenticity of Steven Garza. Boys State is hardly self-contained in its value, however.

This film’s relevance is not just as a yearbook documenting a past event but an embodiment of forces that shape the present and will continue to influence the future. Steven addresses a large crowd at Texas’ Democratic National Convention audience in the film’s epilogue, after all. This might be the first time we meet all these men, though it likely will not be the last. And the next time we encounter them, the stakes might not be as speculative as they are in the Boys State program.

The subjects of Boys State rank among the first wave of so-called Generation Z entering the arena of elected politics in earnest. With their short yet expansive window into a group of civically minded teens, Moss and McBaine have a unique perspective into how a rising cohort could transform America over the coming decades. While the directors avoid opining on the significance of what they filmed within the confines of the narrative, I spoke to them over Zoom to elaborate and extrapolate. Our conversation covered not only who Gen Z is but also how they might campaign in and govern the country. They remained modest about the implications of their work, yet it would not surprise me to look back at Boys State years down the line and see this as a film as prescient as it is insightful.

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