August 10, 2020 at 06:09PM
What happens when teenage boys build a government from the ground up?
SPONSORED BY THE American Legion, a veterans’ association, and dating back to 1935, Boys State and Girls State programmes are held across the United States each summer. Thousands of high schoolers compete to participate in the prestigious initiative, which requires them to build a mock state government, complete with political parties and campaigns for coveted positions such as governor and party chair. The scheme counts former president Bill Clinton, former vice-president Dick Cheney and Samuel Alito, a Supreme Court justice, among its alumni.
“Boys State”, a new documentary, observes a week-long session in Austin, Texas, in 2018. The film opens by quoting George Washington’s farewell address in 1796 on the promise and perils of the young United States. He warns against political factions becoming “potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government”. At first, this invocation of a Founding Father seems rather grandiose. Many of the young male cohorts, dressed in white tees and orange lanyards, are more interested in voting on fanciful resolutions about alien invasions than discussing democracy’s fault lines.
Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the directors, assembled a crew to capture all the important voting sessions and caucuses. (The Boys State system slots students into two parties, Federalists and Nationalists, whose members then formulate distinct platforms.) Their film’s theme—how entrenched dirty partisan tactics have become in America—soon becomes apparent as their chosen characters take their respective political tacks. The vérité footage is supplemented by candid interviews that are variously amusing, inspiring and unsettling.
Robert comes from money and pursues high office with cynical zeal. Steven, the idealistic son of a Mexican immigrant, presents a new face of American politics that better reflects the country’s demographics. René brings poise and wit to his job as party chair of the Nationalists while also expressing anxieties about racial discrimination. (The participants in the Texas programme are largely white.)
If the viewer never forgets that these budding politicos are teenagers, “Boys State” still takes them seriously. The film’s most intriguing figure is Ben, the apparent mastermind of the Federalists and a prodigy of campaign strategy. Ben might be the kind of “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled man” Washington had in mind. Showing his true colours early, he ridicules another student for espousing a vague “freedom” platform, before adopting the slogan “Feinstein for Freedom”. He steers the Federalist candidate for governor and, in the process, articulates and executes the same strategies that have defined presidential contests of late: demonising the opposition, patriotic rabble-rousing and accusations of unfairness. “You have to use personal attacks and divisive issues,” to stand out, Ben explains matter-of-factly. His cynicism is alarming even as his fortitude as a double amputee invites admiration.
This isn’t the sort of political documentary viewers have become accustomed to watch over the past two decades, wherein the good fight goes on and, by the time the credits roll, the audience is exhorted to do its part. “Boys State” is energised by its exuberant students—and buoyed by a relentless school band—but it is also fascinated by rowdy voting sessions, public betrayals and internet-meme smears worthy of Russian trolls. Robert comes to the conclusion that politicians must assume positions other than what they believe: he himself is pro-choice on the matter of abortion but assumes that “wouldn’t line up with the boys out there”. “That’s politics,” he says. “I think.”
The film’s hard-fought campaigns make for an effective nail-biter and the controlled experiment of the Boys State programme comes to feel less hopeful than its civic-minded premise might suggest. Many of the teenagers demonstrate the potential to change American politics, yet the movie warns that a divided country is not guaranteed to produce noble heroes who will save the day. The elections in “Boys State” may be make-believe, but their insights ring painfully true.
“Boys State” is released on Apple TV+ on August 14th
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