Seventeen year-old boys being politicians and running for office—that’s something to see. And you can see it too in Boys State, a documentary by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss chronicling the 2018 proceedings in Austin, Texas. Established years ago by the American Legion (one for girls, and one for boys in their junior year of high school), it’s meant to foster citizenship and leadership skills by having participants organized into two parties campaign and run for major offices, such as governor, state party leader, etc.
One of the challenges for the filmmakers was to meet the student attendees in 2017, and decide at that time which ones the film would highlight. In other words, they had to predict which ones were likely to do well and be comfortable being filmed constantly for six days. That they chose so well (we hear most about five participants) is born out by the interest the film evokes in the individuals as well as the process, which was sometimes heated and controversial. Although the directors’ predictions were impressive, they weren’t perfect; for instance, we should have heard more about one candidate than we did.
Current issues come to the fore as the boys debate gun control, abortion, race, homosexuality, and other controversies we encounter in our adult world today. Distressing scenes are those in which there were calls for impeachment of a party chairman and secession of a state from the U.S.
Sometimes it seems clear the protagonists have opinions that have likely been passed down to them, but other times, they are clearly thinking through and reasoning out their own thoughts. It’s rewarding for the adult viewer to see the values they have and their sincerity and modesty in presenting them. (Gave me hope for the next generation.) An example is a party leader talking about his counterpart, saying, “He’s a fantastic politician—but fantastic politician is not a compliment either.” This related to some political machinations that seemed a bit unfair.
McBaine and Moss took a very thoughtful approach in showing what happened in the six days, but they also recorded the boys’ reflections on events and their own participation in them, sometimes expressing regret about their reaction to something or someone or about what they had missed. This is a substantive part of the documentary in filling out information and getting more insight into the characters.
I had the privilege of listening to a Q&A after the film with the two directors and two of the participants, one a candidate for governor (Steven Garza) and the other a party leader (Ben Feldstein). This is two years after Boys State and their first year of college. Their responses clearly indicated that the experience was valuable for them in learning about politics and more about themselves. I was especially impressed by the insight of one who indicated a change in himself stemming from his reflections on some of his behavior during campaigns.
Boys State was a winner for documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and received Special Jury Recognition at the SXSW Film Festival, kudos well deserved by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.
A highly interesting peek into politics and governance at the 2018 Boys State in Austin, Texas.