Boys State – a heady mix of testosterone, politics, and popularity

Sundance London 2020
12th August 2020

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The best documentaries allow filmmakers to fly free of control as they reflect on the intricate patterns of life and the beliefs, actions and desires that make us tick. Boys State does just this as it takes the viewer from disappointment to hope, anger to sympathy and disgust to delight as we follow a group of young men eager to find their political voice. Boys State holds a mirror to modern masculinity, American values and political beliefs while reflecting upon a society built on social media, soundbites and instant popularity through a truly riveting summer camp where values, opinions, and understanding are both forged and challenged in equal measure.

Boys State (like its equivalent, Girls State) started in 1935 as an American Legion-organised entrance into the murky world of politics for young people. US states sent passionate young people aged 16 and 17 to a political summer camp to hone their campaigning and policy skills while giving flight to their potential political careers. However, the fact that these camps still take place in single-gender environments is baffling; after all, society is NOT single-gender, and maybe this partly explains the ongoing gender inequality at the heart of US politics.

We join Amanda McBaine’s and Jesse Moss’ fascinating documentary as the Boys State Camp 2018 gets underway in Texas, with over 1000 hormonal and confident young men arriving in a bubble of excitement, bravado, arrogance and apprehension. Once settled, the boys are split into two groups, the Nationalists and the Federalists, with each political group tasked with building a party belief structure and policies from the ground up. Here, the young men are encouraged to work around their right-wing and left-wing beliefs in each group; however, it quickly becomes clear the right has the stage in Texas as both groups become ingrained in anti-abortion, pro-gun and neo-conservative policies.

But amid the ocean of hormones and political one-upmanship is Rene Otero, an African-American teen from Chicago who recently moved to Texas and firmly sits in the centre ground of politics, lighting up every debate with his lived experience. At the same time, Steven Garza, the son of a once undocumented Mexican mother, believes diversity, equality and social justice are the only ways to challenge neo-conservative beliefs. Meanwhile, Robert MacDougall believes personal opinions don’t win votes, and, on the face of it, appears to think politicians need to “tell the crowd what they want to hear,” while double amputee Ben Feinstein is ruthless in his belief of Reaganism.

At times, Boys State is a damning reflection of a political system slowly diving further into populism and division, but there are also rays of light and hope. Here, the intense mix of optimism and despair becomes almost unbearable as the vote for a young Governor nears with one liberal and one conservative candidate on a knife edge of winning the hearts and minds of the other boys. But while the campaigns and elections are mired in a ruthless appetite for victory at any cost, the importance of political education and challenge shines through, and you leave Boys State with a deep sense of hope as young people are encouraged to define their own voice free from adult sway and indoctrination.

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