‘Boys State’: A hopeful reflection on our nation’s politics

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In their award-winning documentary, “Boys State” filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine tackle the rising tension that follows the gubernatorial race at Texas Boys State, a week-long mock exercise in which high school seniors from across Texas build their own state government. Alongside the subjects, four boys with different backgrounds and aspirations, the filmmakers inspire not just the audience, but also the attendees of the 2018 Texas Boys State. 

At Texas Boys State, 1,100 boys are separated into two fictional parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, and each party must come together to form their own policies and run for positions within their parties. Ultimately, each party campaigns for their candidate to be elected the highest position at Boys State: state governor.  

Early on in the screening process, the filmmakers stumbled upon their subjects: Steven Garza, a determined and progressive but quiet child of Mexican immigrants who’s in the run for governor through the Nationalist party; Robert MacDougall, a laid-back but complex teen who preaches to the crowd and runs against Steven; and Ben Feinstein, a double amputee and conservative teen whose confidence propels him into the position of party chairman for the Federalists. Later on during the filming process, the filmmakers met René Otero, a fierce and headstrong African American teen who wins party chairman for the Nationalist party and overcomes challenges of impeachment and racism. 

“We fully credit the hand of fate in that we can’t control the documentary gods, and they did shine down upon us, and we got very lucky,” Moss said in a college press conference call. “But they [the boys] all did so well in different ways and they all turned out to be as complicated, interesting [and] remarkable as we hoped that they would be.” 

For the filmmakers, finding a diverse cast of subjects was just as important as making sure they filmed as much of the week-long event as possible. 

“We did have a tiny checklist when we were looking for kids, and part of that was diversity in background, in life experience, in socioeconomic but also in politics,” McBaine said in the press conference call. 

Over the course of the documentary, Steven evolves from a shy, Bernie Sanders supporter to an inspiring orator who appeals to the better selves of his largely-conservative peers. 

“We were very excited to follow Steven through this process because he was a little bit of an underdog in a lot of ways,” McBaine said in the press conference call.  

McBaine discussed how Steven’s soft-spoken nature attributed to this underdog status, and she originally wasn’t sure if he would be able to muster the power and confidence to command a room of rowdy teenage boys. However, they were pleasantly surprised when he made it as far as he did into the gubernatorial race, able to inspire people through his speeches alone. 

“It just reminds me what this country is capable of if people are given a chance and their voice is heard,” McBaine said.  

Robert, who ran against Steven in the party primaries, tried to appeal to his conservative peers by centering his policy around that, which he thought his peers would approve of. For example, Robert heavily emphasized his policies on abortions and pro-life rhetoric, despite secretly being pro-choice. 

“I went into this experience with a very narrow, quite cynical … mindset, I had this expectation that that room was going to be a very red, very one-minded place,” Robert said in the press conference. “So, I made the decision to run based on that expectation and that eventually led to me losing to Steven in our own party primary.” 

What Moss and McBaine captured in “Boys State” provides a brutally honest reflection of the current state of our nation’s politics. Robert lied about his true political values for his own political gain, and this ultimately backfired because of Steven’s firm belief in his own values. This unwavering belief in his own values, combined with his own powerful rhetoric, allowed Steven to appeal to the better selves of the other Boys State attendees and inspire them, despite differences in political beliefs. 

“Steven is someone who ran on what he actually believed in, what actually meant a lot to him, and that ended up showing me that that’s not necessarily a true statement,” Robert said in the press conference. “You don’t have to lie to win all the time.” 

Although the documentary doesn’t provide a concrete answer to achieving bipartisanship, Robert and Moss discussed the importance of listening to each other and meeting each other halfway in the press conference call.  

“In the end, I truly do think I saw the vast majority of people want the same thing. They want what’s best for their state, their city, their country … It’s just how they want to get there is so different,” Robert said. “For the most part that should be able to be done without actually having to compromise on those core deeply held beliefs.” 

“Boys State” depicts a powerful picture of what takes place in contemporary politics, with demagoguing right at the center of it. In the last half of the documentary, Ben makes a controversial decision that outright determines the outcome of the gubernatorial election. Although that decision may be initially frowned upon by some viewers, it’s a great example of what demagoguing can achieve in the political sphere.  

Despite the real-world parallels drawn by the documentary, “Boys State” still manages to stay lighthearted and hilarious. After all, it is a group of boys left to their own devices to form and run a state government. It borders on “Lord of the Flies,” making the audience wonder whether this will devolve into insanity or if the participants of Boys State will begin to take it seriously. The first few days of the event show the attendees passing legislation that bans cargo shorts and pineapple on pizza, but they later get things under control as the parties begin to elect others into important positions.  

However, Moss and McBaine do a fantastic job of interweaving breaks from the drama evolving within Boys State. One way this is done is by dedicating a small break in the documentary to the events of the talent show, which showcases both serious acts, like singing and playing the guitar, to more ridiculous ones, like playing Darude’s “Sandstorm” on a French horn or completing a Rubik’s cube in record time. 

Even though he didn’t win the election, Steven defied all odds and expectations. He went the distance with the Federalist party by speaking from the heart and keeping true to his values. 

“I want to win, I would like to be the Texas Boys State governor, but I also don’t want to betray the values that I hold dear to me,” Steven said in the press conference call. 

Still, the very essence of “Boys State” is exactly what Moss and McBaine have captured: It’s lightning in a bottle. It’s teeming with energy from these 1,100 boys that are 17- and 18-years-old, who are all eager to learn and make a difference in the political sphere. It shocks us too, by providing a sobering realization that the decisions and examples our politicians make today will directly influence not just how our nation’s youth perceives politics and the electoral process, but also how they will tackle those issues tomorrow. 

The lessons we take from “Boys State” are important, and should be used to examine the upcoming presidential election. No matter who you’re voting for, it’s important to make your voice heard and vote. On campus, UConnPIRG will be providing students with virtual voter education toolkits, according to chapter Chair Colleen Keller. Some of the resources included in these toolkits will be information on voter suppression and checklists of what you need when you head to the polls.  

The filmmakers created and examined a microcosm of the political sphere through the lens of teenage boys. “Boys State” compels the audience to really reflect upon the current state of our nation’s politics. It’s a bittersweet ending, but it leaves us with a glimpse of hope: If a group of teenage boys can figure out how to see past their differences and effectively communicate with each other to enact some real change, maybe we can too. 

“Boys State” is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release. Now available to stream on Apple TV+. 

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