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Review: Boys State

June 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Every year, over a thousand kids in Texas are selected to participate in Boys State, a conference run by the American Legion that teaches participants how to build a representative government over the course of a week. The boys are randomly split into two groups of six hundred each to form the Federalist and Nationalist parties, and they hold conventions, debate policy and run for positions in mock elections, with governor being the highest office they can seek.

This program, which serves as a mix of high pressure summer camp and educational crash course in politicking, provides the setting for the documentary Boys State, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and is one of the year’s best. The film had its international premiere yesterday through an Apple TV+ streaming event exclusively for Hot Docs members, as part of the Hot Docs online festival, which fully wraps up this week on June 24th.

Employing a vérité approach, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, (who previously made the remarkable cinéma vérité documentary The Overnighters, which I would recommend seeking out), craft a compelling portrait of the 2018 Boys State competition as it unfolds, with the film mainly focusing on four main subjects who were singled out early on in the process.

Ben Feinstein is an ambitious young conservative whom we first meet in the film watching a Ronald Reagan speech on YouTube. His mother affectionately refers to him as a “future president,” (as an aside, his fictitious campaign slogan “Feinstein for Freedom” could serve as a catchy rallying cry for a real life political run), and the fact that he is a double amputee makes him even more determined to succeed, and to be viewed on his own merits as an individual.

Robert MacDougall is a self-described libertarian whose entrepreneurial spirit makes him a natural choice for leadership, and his outgoing, charismatic personality gives him the early advantage of being able to rally the troops around him, so to speak. Steven Garza is a young progressive from a Latino immigrant background who nevertheless becomes an underdog favourite with the mostly right-wing, pro-gun crowd, helping them find common ground on issues like universal background checks.

Finally, René Otero is an outspoken leftist who is originally from Chicago, and is one of only a handful of Black participants. Otero initially dismisses the program as a “conservative indoctrination camp” before conceding that it’s actually “what every liberal needs” in order to engage with and understand the other side. One of the big lessons for all of the boys is that finding common ground and reaching compromises, amplified by some tense debates on what policies to implement as part of their party platforms, is a big key to winning this game.

MacDougall, Garza and Otero are all assigned spots on the Nationalist side, while Feinstein becomes a Federalist. MacDougall and Garza are both competing for governor, while Otero is elected party chair of the Nationalists, a choice that is met with controversy and calls to impeach him. Feinstein initially plans to run for governor on the Federalist side, but decides to make his bid for party chair instead, backing a fast-talking kid named Eddy Proietti Conti – whom Feinstein informs us has been compared to a young Ben Shapiro – for the governor spot.

There is plenty of drama in the film as the participants jockey for power, with the filmmakers using a team of camera operators to capture all of the action and concurrent events. The footage has been cut together into a compelling, cohesive narrative feature by editor Jeff Gilbert. Moss and McBaine conduct sit down interviews with the four subjects that were filmed between the action, giving further insight into their thought processes and campaign choices, including a remarkable moment when MacDougall talks about compromising his own personal beliefs in order to try and win.

Yes, the outcomes of their elections have no real world consequences, but the opening credits of the film show us pictures of some of the past participants, including President Bill Clinton, Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator Cory Booker, which automatically heightens the stakes for these kids. One of the most exciting aspects of Boys State is watching these young, future leaders in action; Garza and Otero in particular deliver incredible speeches in the film that are rousing to watch, and would automatically make them favourites on the campaign trail should they choose to actually run in the future.

While learning how to run political campaigns, the boys also gain first hand experience with both good old fashioned attack ads and modern meme warfare as they go toe-to-toe on contentious issues like gun control and abortion, utilizing social media to run smear campaigns on their opponents. You know, just like in a real political campaign. While the stakes are manufactured, this is as cutthroat and ruthless as real world politics, balanced somewhere between a valuable lesson in democracy and a social experiment with the low-key threat of bubbling over into a Lord of the Flies type situation at any given moment.

The fact that all of the competitors are boys obviously changes how issues are being discussed, and there is some question of whether the program being gender segregated is biasing what issues are brought up, with young women instead participating in a female equivalent called Girls State. This would also be a great subject for a documentary should Moss and McBaine choose to do a followup. Functioning as a fascinating microcosm of the American political system, Boys State is both very interesting and quite entertaining to watch unfold, building up genuine drama and tension as it goes along.

Boys State will be released by Apple and A24 later in the year.

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