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

Sundance London 2020

What makes a world-class documentary? Could it be the topic and the fly on the wall realism? Or maybe it’s the ability of filmmakers to reflect uncomfortable truths and glimmers of redemption and hope? Of course, the answer to these questions will differ for every viewer, but, for me, world-class documentaries reflect all of these traits and more. The best documentaries allow filmmakers to fly free of control as they reflect the intricate pattern of life before unpicking it and sewing it back together. Boys State achieves just this in a documentary that takes you from disappointment to hope, anger to sympathy and disgust to delight.

If all this sounds like an emotional rollercoaster, it is! Boys State holds a fascinating and often uncomfortable mirror to themes of modern masculinity, American values and political beliefs. While at the same time, reflecting upon a society built on social media, soundbites and instant popularity. The result is a journey of hope, disillusionment, class divide, triumph, rejection and nationhood that is truly riveting.

Boys State (like its equivalent Girls State) started in 1935 as an American Legion organised entry into politics for young people. Here US states sent passionate young people aged 16 and 17 to a political summer camp to home their campaigning and policy skills. These camps have since become a tradition that has given birth to many political careers; the eager young conscripts supported in building a state legislature from parties to policies. However, the fact that these camps take place in single-gender environments is somewhat baffling. After all, society is NOT single-gender! But back to the Boys State camp of summer 2018 in Texas, where over 1000 hormonal and confident young men have arrived in a bubble of excitement, bravado, arrogance and apprehension.

Boys State (A24/Apple TV)

On arrival, the young men find themselves split into two new groups, the Nationalists and the Federalists. Each group aims to build 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 structure. However, it’s clear the right-wing has the stage in Texas as both groups become ingrained in anti-abortion, pro-gun and neo-conservative rhetoric.

But amid this ocean of hormones and political one-upmanship, it’s the boys we meet who make this documentary a rollercoaster of joy. We meet Rene Otero, an African American teen from Chicago who recently moved to Texas. His bright, bubbly centre-ground political beliefs, poles apart from many others in his party. At the same time, there is Robert Macdougall, a football jock who believes personal opinions don’t win votes, his initial mantra ‘tell the crowd what they want to hear”. Then there is Steven Garza, the son of a once undocumented Mexican mother, his belief in diversity, equality and social justice shining through the ever-present cloud of neo-conservatism. While finally, Ben Feinstein, a double-amputee from San Antonio, bristles with a ruthless intelligence and a love of Reagan-era conservatism.

At times a damning reflection of a political system mired in populism, Boys State also offers brief rays of light and hope in our future leaders. Here the intense mix of optimism and despair becomes almost unbearable as the vote for a young Governor nears. Both candidates poles apart in style and delivery; the first boy, popular, right-wing and white middle-class, the second minority ethnic, liberal and working class. The campaign and elections that follow are mired in the same ruthless appetite for victory found in the adult political world. However, shining through the soundbites, there is also a sense of hope and rebirth that catches you off-guard just when you least expect it.

Directors:  Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss 

Boys State premieres on Apple TV + Friday 14th August    

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