Boys State

An urgent documentary about the state of present and future American politics

By Bradley Lane

Every year, in each of the 50 states, The American Legion hosts gender specific mock government simulations called Girls State and Boys State. In each case nearly 1,000 incoming high school seniors gather at a university over the summer to engage in a weeklong exploration of the American political system aimed at engaging students’ leadership, civic engagement and communication skills. These skills are developed over the course of a week as the students are separated into two parties and then craft unique party platforms and ultimately stage mock elections based on the candidates that each party puts forward.

When the Texas Boys State program in 2017 voted to secede from the union, it became a national news story. Drawing inspiration from the 150-year-long Texas independence movement, the bill passed through both chambers of the mock government claiming that Texas “stands to lose in its relationship with the United States.” It was clearly not entirely serious, but it did raise a lot of eyebrows, including those of filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. They saw this story and immediately realized what an interesting and provocative stage Texas Boys State could be for an exploration of the modern American political discourse and seeing as though all the subjects are high school students, the greater future of American politics.

The subjects they choose to focus on during the chaotic week come from a multitude of different socioeconomic backgrounds and political ideologies, but are framed against a largely white, conservative middle class that make up the bulk of Texas Boys State participants. The film is at its best when it explores the tense and often confrontational nature of policy disagreements between the ideological minority and louder, more brazen majority. The film shows incredible restraint in its framing of these issues so well the tone of the film toes the line between a romanticization of these young men’s idealized version of the political process and a Lord of the Flies-esque claws out, free for all. It is supremely thought-provoking filmmaking that refuses to give the viewer easy answers.

Boys State Texas itself is of course, not a perfect representation of American politics. For one thing there is a glaringly large absence of the blatant influence money has in modern politics and of course, it assumes each voter is actively engaged in the process. Despite these shortcomings, the film is able to frame the events of a week in Texas as a sufficient allegory for the shortcomings of the electoral system as well as highlight what makes democracy such an enticing goal to strive toward. Boys State is available exclusively through Apple TV Plus. – 4/5 stars