'Boys State': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Prepare to work hard if you want to find something hopeful in it.

More than a thousand high-schoolers convene in Austin to run mock elections in Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine's documentary.

Boys State (like Girls State) is a decades-old program, run by the American Legion in states across the country, intending to give bright high school kids a crash course in the American political system. Hundreds of boys who don't know each other converge at, say, a college campus for a week, where they're randomly assigned to one of two parties; abiding by some pre-ordained procedural rules, they're supposed to invent these parties' platforms from scratch, select candidates for office and mount campaigns that will culminate in elections for governor and other offices.

Here's the only thing I remember about my time at Texas Boys State, which happened somewhere between the moment when I said, "Yes, of course I'd like a free week in Austin" and the one when I called home to say I was done with this farce: Sitting in an auditorium watching a loud, stupid debate between fictitious political factions, I saw two representatives of one party stand onstage and extend their arms to form a giant vulva. Another pair of boys grabbed a fifth, then thrust him horizontally back and forth through that orifice, in a visualization of what they intended to do to the opposing party.

In other words, despite the best intentions of the American Legion, Boys State prepared me for the age of Donald Trump, while introducing me to the future fratboys I'd be avoiding on that same campus once I left high school.

Observing this program in the summer of 2017, documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture a dispiritingly similar scene in Boys State, a film that can be explained away using different assumptions by viewers who need to cling to some optimism about America's future. Oh, these kids are just hormonal 17-year-olds, you might say. They'll grow out of it. Oh, things probably look much different at Girls State, or at a Boys State in a less gun-lovin' place than Texas. Taking a broader view, you might see its micro-dystopia as merely an indictment of any two-party system.

Or, if you're truly a glass-half-full person, you'll go the route the filmmakers take, culling through countless wa-hooing nitwits and win-at-any-cost-ers to find a boy or two with courage and character. That's America, you'll say. Well, fingers crossed.

Moss and McBaine, a married couple who've collaborated on docs including 2014's Sundance entry The Overnighters, preface this film with the oft-cited George Washington quote predicting that political parties would allow "unprincipled men" to "usurp for themselves the reins of government." Clearly, Washington was an idiot. Then they cut to a grown-up introducing some Boys Staters to Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, which, in diagnosing the confusion between entertainment and political debate, has grown more damning every year since its 1985 publication.

But nobody onscreen seems to take either of these lessons to heart, and you wonder why the American Legion doesn't reimagine its program. Why not give these kids a real exploration of civic responsibility, political systems and the ways democracies might be improved? (And why not add an apostrophe after "Boys" while you're at it?)

Instead, we see attendees labeled as either Federalists or Nationalists, then instructed to decide what office they aspire to. They rush around asking strangers to sign petitions supporting them as candidates, a confused period that allows us to get to know a few youths who will become players as the week progresses. The film lets minors make a lot of clueless declarations about themselves and the world that they may later (or already) regret, many of which are clearly just echoes of what they hear at home.

But some kids have more life experience than others, and seem well down the road toward the men they will become. Ben, who studies political speeches at home and has a collection of Reagan toys, cares much more about the process of winning elections than any policies that might come later. Rene, a black Chicago native who's "never seen so many white people ever," uses an arsenal of oratorical devices to become his party's chair, then fends off a racist impeachment movement while declaring he will do whatever it takes to keep his job. Steven, whose mother was at one time an undocumented immigrant, comes to the party with actual convictions, and would rather make speeches about "common sense" laws than say whatever jingoistic nonsense is required to get votes.

A hypothetical viewer, who spends the first chunk of this film with a note-taking pen held dangerously close to his jugular vein, may cheer up slightly as Steven's honesty cuts through some of the noise. God bless him, he becomes a viable contender to be his party's candidate for governor: Quiet young men in the crowd encourage him after events, suggesting that, even if they're more right-leaning than he is, they appreciate his obvious integrity. (His main rival, who tells the filmmakers he's pro-choice, pretends to be a strident abortion opponent in hopes of wooing voters.)

And then somebody finds a photo online that shows Steven at a March for Our Lives. Did I mention these kids are Texans? If viewers aren't sure how they feel about Ben, his actions in the following scenes should help them decide.

Boys State inevitably feels more and more like reality TV programming, which is both appropriate for our times and depressing. The handful of characters it spends time with can't really represent the breadth of experiences in this sweaty collection of a thousand or so boys: You know that, among the Eagle Scouts and varsity jocks, there are Doctor Who fans, amateur mycologists and future Virginia Woolf scholars who showed up in Austin, looked around them, and thought, "Well, this is going to be a long week." In their need to squeeze this strange experience into a familiar doc template, McBaine and Moss mostly leave those guys stranded. Here's hoping that, while nobody paid attention, a few of them sat in a quiet corner somewhere and reinvented democracy.

Production company: Mile End Films
Directors-producers: Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss
Executive producers: Lauren Powell Jobs, David Guggenheim, Jonathan Silberberg, Nicole Stott
Director of photography: Thorsten Thielow
Editor: Jeff Gilbert
Composer: T. Griffin
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

109 minutes