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The children are the future – ‘Boys State’

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For over 80 years, the American Legion has been the driving force behind Boys State, a nationwide program aimed at helping high school students gain a greater understanding of the political process. Annually, teenagers descend on college campuses in every state of the union, where they have a hand in creating their own governmental system over the course of a week, with campaigns and elected officials and the whole nine yards.

The documentary “Boys State,” directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, is currently available for streaming in Apple TV+. The film premiered at Sundance, where it won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize. It’s a look at the 2018 edition of Texas Boys State, following a handful of young men as they make their way through the weeklong process. We meet boys from different walks of life, with different ideologies and inclinations, as they navigate the vagaries of Boys State.

It is one of the most compelling pieces of documentary filmmaking we’ve seen in some time. The portrait that it paints is of a group of young people who are reflections of the greater political climate that surrounds them. It is a movie that moves from sweet inspirational moments to unexpected gut punches, illustrative of the wildly swinging political pendulum in which these kids have spent their entire lives. The juxtaposition of innocent optimism and surprising cynicism makes for compelling watching; you can’t tear your eyes away from these kids, regardless of where you may fall on the ideological spectrum.

Over a thousand high school students descended on the Texas capital in Austin for the 2018 incarnation of Boys State. Drawn from schools all over the state, these young men come for the opportunity to participate in a large-scale simulation of the political process. They can choose to operate in any number of capacities, from local officials to party leaders to statewide elected positions – not to mention media and other tangential connections to government.

Rather than use existing parties, Boys State creates its own – the Federalists and the Nationalists. The students are divided between the two and are then tasked with building the platforms for these parties from the ground up as they sort themselves into their various positions, all the way up to the highest, most distinguished role – that of Governor.

We get to know a handful of these kids. Steven is a Mexican-American whose progressive ideas are at odds with those held by many of his fellow students; conservative thought is very much at the forefront among these kids. But Steven still wants to take his gubernatorial shot. There’s Ben, a kid who has already developed a degree of political savvy that belies his age and inexperience; he first considers running for office before deciding to instead run a campaign as Federalist Party chair. Rene Otero is a young black kid, a transplant from Chicago who takes the reins as party chair of the Nationalists, Steven’s party.

These three are the main focus of the film (though we do spend some time with a few others – for instance, Robert MacDougal is a gubernatorial candidate for the Nationalists who displays an at-times-shocking blend of general amiability and cynicism); their journey through the weeklong process is a rollercoaster ride of triumphs and defeats as we wend our way to the election of the governor.

Real talk – “Boys State” is one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen in a very long time. The intent of Boys State is to create a microcosm of real-world politics, an accurate representation of how things work. What’s surprising is how well it accomplishes that goal – for better and for worse. After all, we’re currently living in polarizing times; the choices and actions made and taken by the young men in “Boys State” are an apt reflection of that polarization … and it isn’t always pretty.

Steven is an almost painfully earnest young man, one who is strong in his beliefs, but is also able to engage with and listen to those who disagree with him. That genuineness serves him well as he campaigns, but his stance regarding guns and gun control leaves him vulnerable. It’s a vulnerability that Ben proves both willing and able to exploit, using social media and other means to undermine his opponent and elevate his own candidate. Rene does his best to maintain party order, but there are factors – some reasonable, others far from it – working against him. And in the end, only one party can take the top spot.

“Boys State” is illustrative of just how powerful partisanship can be; party becomes identity with frightening speed. Watching these serious young men try and carve out something real in this brief window is fascinating, even as they wind up following the well-worn political pathways trod by the adults who came before them. Optimism and cynicism appear in almost equal measure. The steady gamification of the process we’ve all been watching is greatly accelerated in this condensed arena.

And yes, there are plenty of kids there who aren’t nearly as invested, kids who want nothing more than to goof off and make jokes from the podium and just hang out. But when you look at the sheer number of significant political figures who have participated in the program over the years – the film opens by offering up a few major names – it’s clear that Boys State is something that truly helps kids engage with politics.

“Boys State” is documentary filmmaking at its finest, a well-crafted and timely exploration of today’s political landscape through the eyes of young men whose passion outweighs (and sometimes overwhelms) their limited experience. This is a look at the next generation of leaders, warts and all; it’s a snapshot of what it means to want to grow up to lead, regardless of which side of the aisle you seek to occupy. These are young people who hope to change the world. A brilliant, utterly unforgettable film.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 17 August 2020 13:31

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