Boys State, a thoroughly entertaining yet substantial documentary, traces a camp where 1,100 teenage boys try to figure out what politics is. In one perfect moment, Robert MacDougall reveals that despite having just given a passionate speech about robbing babies of a chance in the world by killing them via abortion, he is actually pro-choice. Robert is a silver-spoon looking kid who is out to win, even if it means trading his personal beliefs for ones that will give him a broader, better base. "This is a very conservative group we have here...That's politics...I think," he says in defense of his shift in personal conviction. The moment gets at what makes Boys State one of the most engaging films of the year.
Documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss went to Austin to observe the Texas iteration of this event that is organized by the American Legion. Boys State has been happening since the 1930s. There is a Girls State as well. Perhaps we will get another documentary on that camp. Perhaps the focus on Boys State has something to do with the headlines in 2017 when the boys tried to get the state to secede.
The Texas Statemen are mostly white and conservative. Wisely McBaine and Moss focus on four participants that represent more diversity. Robert is the poster boy for white male politicians. He is charismatic and uses it to try to run for governor. His main opponent is Steven Garza, a serious progressive whose mother was undocumented and who transforms from soft-spoken to rousing when in front of an audience. The boys are divided into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. The chairperson of The Nationalist is Rene Otero, a witty, slightly cynical liberal from Chicago who comments on being a representative for black people in a sea of white people. On the Federalist side, is the tenacious Ben Feinstein, an amputee who shifts from running for governor to working behind the scene to help his party win at any cost.
Boys State draws much suspense out of this setup. It is crowd-pleasing and yet there is a sense that you are seeing how political beliefs get formed at this age and the result is some of the problems our current political system has. The filmmakers never stretch to make these connections, they allow them to bubble up naturally. Ben and Steven's opposing schools of thought become a window into how elections are run. Ben is unapologetic and is happy to attack Rene on a weak bias argument in order to get his party ahead. Steven is sincere and frank, willing to take the time for one-on-one conversations. These boys are barely old enough to vote and yet are just as easily affected by tribalism and candidate who attempt to reach across party lines. As Rene says of one cadidate " I think he's a fantastic politician, but I don't fantastic politician is a compliment." Boys State is thrilling as a result and one of the year's best.