Every summer, more than 1,000 teens swarm the Texas State Capitol to attend Boys State, the annual American Legion-sponsored leadership conference where these incipient politicians divide into rival parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists, and attempt to build a mock government from the ground up. In 2017, the program attracted attention for all the wrong reasons (the attendees voted for Texas to secede from the United States), which gave filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss an idea: What would it take to orchestrate a deep dive into the subsequent next session? Is there a right way to cover the testosterone- and Ritalin-fueled event?
One of the biggest sales of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival — for a documentary, no less — “Boys State” represents a revolution in vérité filmmaking, as McBaine and Moss (who collaborated on “The Overnighters”) distill a rowdy session of the summer program into a series of relatable adolescent dramas, offering an alternately encouraging and terrifying look at tomorrow’s politicians in the process. Like “Spellbound” and “Science Fair,” the film is essentially the feature-length equivalent of an elimination-style reality TV show, whose success depends largely on how well the “Boys State” team were able to scout and “cast” the documentary in advance, coupled with the production’s ability to seemingly have eyes in all places.
How many cameras running simultaneously must it have taken to blanket-cover such an event? At times, “Boys State” had as many as seven people filming, splitting up into half a dozen units to track the movie’s various subjects — or, in the case of important voting sessions, to document key moments from multiple angles at once, so those scenes might cut together like a well-choreographed single-camera scripted drama.
The final assembly, which builds to the election where all the Boys State attendees choose their “governor,” blends traditional fly-on-the-wall footage (of the kind seen in political docs such as “Primary” and “The War Room”) with more subjective tricks, like a nervous POV shot when the camera itself steps up to the microphone and gazes out at a room full of expectant teens at the moment a kid named Steven Garza is about to deliver an important speech.
Ultimately, “Boys State” works because the “characters” are so compelling. Since 1937, gender-segregated Boys and Girls State programs have served as an early step for “future leaders” around the country, hosting everyone from Neil Armstrong to Ann Richards, Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney, and McBaine and Moss invested the time and energy up front to identify the handful of attendees who might play a prominent role in the 2018 session — anticipating, of course, that they might go on to achieve big things in the real world as well.
From the sidelines, Texas Boys State looks very white and sounds awfully right-wing, but the documentary gravitates to more diverse subjects, like African American teen Rene Otero, a Chicago transplant who quips, “I’ve never seen so white people ever.” Safe to say, most of these kids haven’t seen anyone like him either, as the extrovert — who is chosen party chair of the Nationalists early on, only to endure talk of impeachment from his detractors — swiftly takes a leadership role. Later, in one of the movie’s confessional-style cutaway interviews, he explains, “At first, I thought this was a conservative indoctrination camp. No, this is what every liberal needs.”
On the Federalist side, Ben Feinstein — a double amputee from San Antonio — comes across as especially bright amid a sea of young people whose half-formed/barely informed political views are no obstacle to voicing their opinions before a room full of strangers (which is presumably how the started-as-a-joke suggestion to secede originated the year before). Contrast Feinstein with relatively privileged Robert Macdougall, a charismatic vote-getter who knows how to rally a crowd, at the expense of his own convictions. “My views on abortion wouldn’t line up with the boys out there, so I chose to change my stance,” he confides, revealing the same craven lack of personal conviction that taints so many career politicians.
As the week unfolds, “Boys State” editor Jeff Gilbert focuses the sprawling event into a single compelling narrative. There are talent shows and legislative sessions, both of which get a bit of screen time in passing, but the outcome of the gubernatorial election takes center stage.
Garza, a soft-spoken Latino teen who had trouble getting enough signatures in the first round, emerges as the Nationalist candidate — and the filmmakers’ clear favorite. On the other side, a young man with Disney Channel good looks and a natural ease in front of a crowd relies on Feinstein to wage a dirty campaign, using social media and personal attacks to undermine the movie’s underdog. (In real life, Garza participated in gun-control demonstrations, which gives his opponents ready fodder against him in the election.)
It’s easy to feel cynical when watching “Boys State,” especially when extrapolating the practices seen here — pandering to the lowest common denominator, compromising on individual ideals — to the national political stage. But it’s hard to be too discouraged by how articulate and engaged most of these young men are, even though they (hilariously) hang themselves at times, a little too confident in their own naiveté. For some, winning is everything. For others, Boys State will no doubt be a steppingstone to greater things.
As Otero says of his Federalist rival, “I think he’s a fantastic politician. But I don’t think a ‘fantastic politician’ is a compliment either.” In the end, the overall level of engagement is encouraging, and though “Boys State” doesn’t actively investigate the biases and flaws of the event itself — foremost, the lack of girls — the takeaway is clear: Contemporary politics is scary, but the kids are all right.