I don’t know that I’ve seen a movie this year that simultaneously depressed the hell out of me and filled me with hope like “Boys State,” a documentary premiering on Apple TV+. For anyone flattened by the political upheavals of recent years and dreading what the future holds, this movie says at worst it’ll be like Ben Feinstein. But at best it will be like Steven Garza.
Let me elaborate. Since 1935, the American Legion has sponsored an annual week-long program in every US state aimed at teaching high school juniors about civil discourse and America’s governmental system. Bill Clinton went to Boys State. So did young Dick Cheney. So did Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss train their cameras on the 2019 Boys State program held in Austin, Texas. What results is equal parts frat rush, wonk fest, prayer meeting, and color war. (There’s a separately held Girls State, and, yes, we need a movie about them too.)
Upon arrival, the boys are divided into two “parties,” the Federalists and Nationalists. In the days to come, they will elect local and district leaders, hammer out a political platform, and pick a governor, who will then be pitted against the other party’s choice in a climactic vote. Because they’re teenage boys, the platform planks can be goofy (allocate defense spending for an alien attack; relocate Priuses to Oklahoma). Because this is Texas, everyone is pro-gun rights, anti-abortion, and Christian.
Or they say they are. It quickly becomes apparent in “Boys State” that what purports to be a seminar on civic participation is really a schooling in political mud wrestling, with most of the kids understanding that there will be a certain amount of lying involved. Early in the movie, an uber-confident jock named Robert is seen campaigning for the top post, assuring the other boys of his right-to-life bona fides. Privately interviewed, he admits he’s actually pro-choice, saying “As to the political beliefs in my speech – those are not my own. I’m playing this like a game.”
Eek. Not surprisingly, this is the lesson the coming generation has learned from decades of scorched-earth campaigns and Donald Trump, and it finds its fiercest advocate in Ben Feinstein, a savvy operator who quickly opts out of running for governor to become the Federalist’s state party chairman – i.e., a combination campaign manager/kingmaker. The filmmakers spend a lot of time with Feinstein, curious about what makes him tick: Wiry and intense, he has a Ronald Reagan action figure in his bedroom and two prosthetic legs to replace the ones he lost to meningitis as a child. He’s blatantly, happily jaded about the political process, allowing that “You have to use personal attacks and divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all.” A born backroom infighter, the kid has a future, and we should be very scared.
But so does his opposite number, Rene Otero, the state party chairman for the Nationalists, and a mixed-race lefty who’s as sharp about working the votes as he is honest about learning from his opposite numbers. “At first I was thinking, this is a conservative indoctrination camp, and then I was like, this is what every liberal needs,” Rene says before easily beating back an impeachment attempt from some fellow Nationalist bros who can barely disguise their racism.
All of these fine young fellows pale before Steven Garza, the soft-spoken son of a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant. He arrives at Boys State having worked on progressive campaigns and marched against school shootings, and if Feinstein is a natural political animal, Garza is something rarer and more shocking: a leader who prompts immediate respect. Early on, he squares off against Robert in a gubernatorial debate, and after his rival wastes his speech on a jokey pep talk, Steven speaks calmly but passionately of wanting to bring his group together in unity – of finding mutual grounds of agreement rather than further divisions. He’s cogent, he’s sincere, he makes a virtue of seriousness. You can feel the kids coming around to him and at the end explode in cheers. It’s a tremendous scene, one that could power a viewer all the way to Election Day.
From there, “Boys State” charts Garza’s race against the Federalists’ chosen candidate, a slick young conservative named Eddy, with Feinstein and Otero working the electorate from behind and occasionally in front of the scenes. “Boys State” leaves the adults on the sidelines; the boys are articulate and media literate enough. They know how to run a social media smear campaign, and they also know how to cross party lines to connect with someone whose sense of purpose lives up to their own inner ideals. The movie is both sobering in its subjects’ lockstep conservatism and revealing in the way many of the kids express broader, more liberal ideas in private, to the filmmakers or to Garza.
Steven’s secret, it turns out, is that he knows you can be a young conservative who supports LGBTQ rights and immigration. By acknowledging that, he brings them into his tent. “Boys State” is remarkable in the way it shows this country’s political future being formed away from the catechisms of parents, hometowns, and Fox News.
Some of those adults will be like Ben Feinstein or Rene Otero, hard-nosed operators on the right and left. (Of his Trump-inspired tactic of painting the electoral process as “rigged” to divide voters, Feinstein concludes, “I have no problem with that decision, morally or politically. Politically it worked.”) Some will be like Robert, followers capable of having their eyes opened and minds changed. And some, let us hope, will have the wisdom and compassion and the low voice that carries far of Steven Garza. If we’re lucky, we haven’t heard the last of him.
Directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. Available on Apple TV+. 110 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language and thematic elements).