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The thrilling documentary Boys State covers all the flaws of American politics

It’s thrilling and funny, but infuriating, too

Two of the subjects from Boys State get excited over the latest news on their phones. Photo: Apple TV Plus
Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

This review was originally published in conjunction with Boys State’s premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It has been updated and republished in conjunction with the film’s release through Apple TV Plus.

Logline: The ridiculously entertaining documentary Boys State follows a thousand teenage boys as they create a state government from the ground up, and wind up reproducing all of American democracy’s worst principles and flaws as well.

Longerline: Since 1939, the American Legion has hosted an annual nationwide leadership event where teenagers in each state gather for a political simulation. Over the course of a week, they separate into parties, create platforms, elect a leadership, and eventually put forward their party candidates for governor, the event’s highest position. Boys State tracks the boys’ side of the project’s 2018 Texas edition. (The events are gender-split, so Boys State and Girls State are carried out separately in most states.)

Married directors Jesse Moss (who directed the excellent Army-combat-LARP doc Full Battle Rattle and the Netflix series The Family) and Amanda McBaine (his frequent producer, making her directorial debut) follow the process from the beginning, interviewing some participants at home before they even arrive at the event, then following them through canvassing, coalition-building, and intense politicking for office. Their film centers on one contentious campaign, as a wide field of nominees for governor of Boys State 2018 narrows down to two candidates, and more particularly, the would-be kingmakers behind them.

The doc lightly covers the vast sweep of the Boys State phenomenon, which feels impossibly crowded for one week of activity — it includes sports matches, a talent show, a parade (complete with a Boys State marching band), a mock news organization staffed by teenagers putting out podcasts and running a mini-TV station, and much more. But Moss and McBaine dive deeply into the gubernatorial race, as a few key players emerge. They track the boys’ strategies and schemes, their on-the-fly adjustments to election results and debate kerfuffles, and their growing determination to win, which results in an increasingly ugly race. And along the way, the participants wind up re-creating the flaws in the American political system with remarkable fidelity, from rabble-rousing populism and flag-waving in place of real issues to a reliance on smear campaigns and dirty tricks.

Steven Garza squints into the sun in Boys State. Photo: Apple TV Plus

The quote that says it all: In a one-on-one interview, one candidate gives the filmmakers a candid assessment of how he covered up his own progressive beliefs in order to appeal to the event’s largely conservative demographic. “You gotta say what you gotta say in order to win,” he sighs. “It’s probably a questionable thing to lie in politics, but getting here certainly gave me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.”

What’s it trying to do? The filmmakers don’t have a clear agenda or a clear bias. Progressive viewers might see them as progressive, based on the comedic moments of hypocrisy and demagoguery that make it into the doc, especially from the more right-leaning participants. Conservative viewers might see them as more sympathetic to those participants’ views, as the filmmakers give the boys time to expound on why abortion or gun control are wrong, or why supporting America means supporting Donald Trump. Balancing those views out, it feels like the directors are genuinely just out to boil a hugely complicated event down to a few approachable, representative, highly relevant narrative threads.

Does it get there? Does it ever. The event starts off looking like a goofy role-playing and character-building exercise for precocious junior politicians, but it rapidly turns into a high-intensity battle. At first, the stakes are small and personal, particularly for participants like Steven Garza, a comparatively shy kid who struggles to get other boys to sign onto his initial campaign. But once the boys are arbitrarily split into Nationalist and Federalist parties, a rabid sense of competition overtakes them. Nationalist party chair Rene Otero faces what he sees as a racist uprising among his party, while his Federalist counterpart, Ben Feinstein, tries to exploit Otero’s image problems. As Garza emerges as one of the Nationalist front-runners, he faces competition from Rob Macdougall, a charismatic good-ol’-boy type trying to manipulate his peers by appealing to their enthusiasm for guns and a good time.

One of the many things that makes Boys State entertaining as well as relevant is the way Moss and McBaine capture these kids’ different facets, and track how their combined ambition and naïveté play into the big picture. On the one hand, the participants clown around with the process, proposing legislation to address “the looming threat of alien invasion” and the difficulty of pronouncing the letter W. (The wag who introduces that bill demands that Boys State officially change the letter to “dubya.”) A favorite leadership tactic involves getting them to chant, howl, or hoot like apes in order to focus their attention. There’s a lot of young male energy in these proceedings.

But at the same time, Boys State captures the actual moments where these boys — many of them activists, many of them already working toward planned military or political careers — realize that bipartisanship and compromise are hard, while inventing scandals, loudly appealing to patriotism and group loyalty, and talking in noncommittal soundbites is easy. In one-on-one confessionals with the filmmakers, the film’s primary subjects openly admit the various ways they’ve learned that telling the truth or playing fair with their rivals would get them nowhere in politics.

Moss and McBaine’s access throughout the doc is startling: they capture everything from emotional breakdowns to the boys giggling over the dumb Instagram memes they make to dis their opposite numbers, and they track everything from miniature scandals to cynical strategy sessions. (Inserting some lavish praise for the audience into a speech, Rob tells his inner council, “People like that stuff. People like that stuff a lot.”) And it’s all edited together in a way that keeps it lively, tells a series of distinct stories, and builds real tension around the results. What starts out as a bunch of kids playing politics turns into a nail-biting referendum on different forms of American thought, and a preview of the next generation of American leaders.

A room full of 16-year-old boys wearing identical T-shirts and lanyards in Boys State. Photo: Apple TV Plus

What does that get us? It might leave viewers a little depressed, and very curious both about how other Boys State events play out in different states, and how Girls State compares. It’s especially worth wondering if the girls’ events typically make abortion such a central issue, and whether they decide as cavalierly that it should be universally banned. Still, there are so many laughs, and so many telling and relatable moments, and so many fascinating, colorful characters here, Boys State is utterly mesmerizing.

The most meme-able moment: At one early point on the campaign trail, Rob delivers a bro-y speech designed to get the audience screaming his name, but gets a tepid response. Then Steven follows with a fiery call for Nationalist pride and unity that has the crowd howling with approval and standing to applaud him. The directors cut to Rob’s reaction, and capture a perfect expression of stunned humiliation that feels like it could be slapped on a Know Your Meme page called “What Just Happened?”

When can we see it? Boys State will be released exclusively through Apple TV Plus on Aug. 14.