Synopsis: A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.
Director: Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Show of hands. How many of you out there reading this have been watching your favorite news network and watched the politicians of our great nation squabbling over some pithy thing while a huge issue goes unresolved and thought to yourself “Geez, they’re acting like children!” You’re raising your hand right now, aren’t you? Ok. You can put your hand down and continue on. Yes, it’s true that more often than not, politicians are no longer looked at as the distinguished men and women that are elected to serve for the people but more as misbehaving children and petulant teens. Actually, having watched Boys State I think that comparison isn’t fair to teens because this insightful and surprisingly agile documentary shows that maybe the young leaders of tomorrow already have something on their elder statesmen and women: decorum.
Let’s back up a bit. When I first saw the preview for Boys State I was expecting something far more wince-inducing to get through. I fully thought I’d be grimacing during this look inside the yearly event sponsored by The American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary and held in every state. Began in 1935 by a Loyola law professor and an American Legion chairman, the program has expanded throughout the country and is a massive event for high school juniors that gives them a crash course in the day to day operations of local, county and state government. Throughout their weeklong stay, the students will elect their own officials and debate issues that are of importance to them, all in service of understanding their roles in government and politics. Being elected to office looks mighty good on a college admission application, too.
Though every state offers programs for boys and girls, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss choose to focus solely on the 1,000+ strong Boys State event that was held in Texas several years ago and what they’ve captured is pretty eye-opening. Instead of the staunch conservative red-blooded American indoctrinated teenagers I thought we’d be spending two hours with, we’re instead greeted with a diverse cast of interesting personalities that come from different backgrounds and perspectives. Make no mistake, all of the boys McBaine and Moss follow have been painstakingly chosen to play a role in a certain unspoken narrative but it’s not as manipulative as it might seem on the surface. There is good representation of all sides for the most part and gun control seems to be the lynchpin much of the action hinges on, but even though viewers may disagree on the politics of the subjects the kids themselves are kind of great in their own way.
As anyone who has ever been to summer camp without their close friends accompanying them can attest, your first moments off the bus in a new group of people your own age is scary. Though students mostly stay with their cities so they at least know a few familiar people, I’d have to imagine a sea of largely white faces must be intimidating for the few minority members that are in attendance. Even so, it isn’t hard for socially conscious René Otero to find his place in the crowd or for the popular and gregarious Robert Macdougal to ingratiate himself with anyone he decides to charm. Then there are those that have to work a little harder, double amputee Ben Feinstein has a game plan going into the week that could prove to make him a hero or villain at the end of it all. Finally, the quiet Steven Garza wants to get to know people on an individual basis and treats even the brief responsibilities of mock government with respect.
How these four and others will work together within two opposing parties is the stuff of good documentary filmmaking – you’ll be highly engaged and maybe alternatively enraged at some of the tactics that go on. Cheering on small victories leads to laughter at deserved losses for those unprepared to go toe to toe with more qualified candidates…much like the enjoyment we may get in seeing our current government officials challenged. Don’t be surprised to find yourself holding your breath when votes are tallied and decisions announced and keep a tissue handy because a tear or two might fall – not for any reason other than seeing some goodness in the next generation that many leaders are sorely lacking in.
Available on Apple+ and arriving just after the first batch of primary elections have wrapped up, I imagine Boys State will generate some more buzz as the November elections get underway. My hope is that the way these young men conduct themselves is used as an example of how decorum and acceptance can be a good fit in politics and that inclusion, not exclusion benefits everyone in the end.