Young men wade into the waters of Trump-era politics, showing a haunting, hopeful glimpse of our political future.
In the opening minutes of Boys State, a teacher lectures a classroom about the difference between the dystopias of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. The increased political polarization brought on by the Internet, he claims, has created a world less like Orwell’s (where a totalitarian state deprives us of information) and more like Huxley’s (where we “come to love our oppression” and silo ourselves off into camps). Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss‘s documentary Boys State is ostensibly about this. But it also turns a jaundiced eye towards the way that same polarization is heavily embedded in the conservative link between masculinity and politics.
Every year, the Texas American Legion sends a group of kids (separated by gender) to a summer camp citizenship program where they learn the ins and outs of the political process. In Boys State, the kids are divided into two political parties — “Nationalist” and “Federalist”, with no demonstrable ties to existing political groups — and tasked to run an election to see who would run Boys State. Of course, this is Texas in 2018, with an overwhelmingly white, conservative population occupying the camp. So it doesn’t take long before the kind of mudslinging tactics that won Trump the election in 2016 rears their ugly head.
Watching kids struggle through feats of physical or intellectual rigor is a frequent subject of documentary film, whether it’s the spelling bee kids of Spellbound or the toe-tapping Brooklynites of Mad Hot Ballroom. Here, though, McBaine and Moss view Boys State as a political battleground where the worst instincts of 21st-century discourse rear their ugly head.
A few figures find a particular focus: there’s Ben Feinstein, a staunch conservative who hates identity politics (“I don’t think of myself as white,” he conveniently says early in the movie) and has an action figure of Ronald Reagan. (Another kid likens his dizzying, fast-talking posturing admiringly to Ben Shapiro, a moment liable to make you gag.)
There’s also Robert MacDougall, a young, handsome good old boy who spits talking points about abortion and gun control through his easy-going Southern drawl. Fittingly, talking-head interviews reveal these kids are playing at least a little bit with the ‘theater’ of politics. Robert, for instance, is pro-choice but knows his audience to which he has to play.
It can be exhausting to swim in the adolescent machismo of the arch-conservative teens of Boys State. But McBaine and Moss do find two figures on which we can find some measure of inspiration. Steven Garza, a young progressive who speaks passionately and with fervor, is a likable presence who quickly moves to the forefront. Likewise, René Otero is a young Black kid with extraordinary rhetorical powers, his idealism chipped away by more cynical takedowns.
Fittingly, talking-head interviews reveal these kids are playing at least a little bit with the ‘theater’ of politics.
Playing to the lowest common denominator is a well-worn tactic, and Boys State shows how that plays out. Memes have become a major player in political discourse, as one cheeky montage informs us; allying with trolly Instagram accounts can turn on you when they take the racism too far. (Ignoring, of course, that the racism was always part of why they latched onto that account in the first place.) “Snowflake” “fake news” and other Trump-era buzzwords fly freely. In the game of power, there are no rules. A body politic occupied entirely by young, hormonal macho trolls shows how quickly norms can dissipate in the wider world.
It’s easy for us to wave our hands at our racist grandpas, and hope that the kids will be alright. But what Boys State highlights is that a whole new generation of conservatives is being built. Ones with Internet savvy, nimble meme fingers, and a cynical will to win power at the cost of their own principles. “Maybe God will judge me differently for all this, I don’t know,” Ben says of his underhanded tactics. But that’s a later problem. He’s young, and he wants to be in charge; how he gets there is immaterial.
Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is its optimism. Boys State‘s final minutes pull a Bad News Bears, as Garza weeps in gratitude for everyone who told him how inspiring he was even in defeat. And he is; we need more principled young men like him and Otero in the political landscape.
But Boys State also teaches us that it’s that naivete (and the opposition’s unwillingness to play fair) that keeps principled people out of political office. We’re three months away from an election where the incumbent candidate for president has openly admitted to cutting funding for the postal service in order to suppress votes. It’s admittedly dispiriting to watch the next generation of political hopefuls take the wrong lessons from 2016. They chase the ego trip of power and the masculine need to dominate over principles of empathy and fair play.
I think the doc could have used a bit more perspective or a greater reckoning with the messiness of what’s on-screen. But there’s a lot to appreciate about the anthropological nature of Boys State. Rather than judge the kids too overtly, McBaine and Moss are content to capture the proceedings. They let their subjects’ innate watchability (whether you’re rooting for or against them) do the heavy lifting.
Some may deride the doc for not editorializing more overtly; I think it’s both a grim portent of the electoral mess to come, and a reminder to huddle around the few kids who have a good head on their shoulders.
Boys State makes its case on Apple TV+ on August 14th.