Since 1935, the American Legion has hosted a civic engagement camp called Boys State, the goal of which has been to immerse high school juniors in the process of government as they’re given free rein to build a representative democracy from the ground up. Think Lord of the Flies meets AP U.S. History.
Notable past attendees include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Samuel Alito, and Cory Booker, proof that, aside from looking good on a college application, that camp has been a formative experience for future political leaders.
In recent years, the conference has become controversial in some circles for being, as one recent camper put it, “a conservative indoctrination camp.” Then in 2017, it made national news when the students at Texas’ annual Boys State voted for Texas to secede from the union.
Husband-and-wife filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss suspected, given that news, that there was an interesting story to tell at Texas Boys State. Was this a cheeky, petulant joke from a bunch of snickering teens? Or evidence of just how extreme disunity has become among future voters?
What they didn’t expect to find is, midway through the Trump administration, a microcosm of greater America: a polarized voting body in the throes of a societal existential crisis, a new generation both energized by and corrupted by the reality of modern politics, and a beacon of hope and harbinger of doom, playing in equal measure, on the future of democracy.
“In 2018 when we made this, we felt like we were making a film about polarization,” McBaine tells The Daily Beast. “What we couldn’t see going forward was that, in the next two years, the country was going to become more divided than it already was.”
Boys State had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and broke the record for biggest documentary sale in the festival’s history after being scooped by Apple and A24 for $12 million. It’s being released this Friday.
Like many filmmakers, McBaine and Moss were left scratching their heads after the 2016 election, wondering what had led the country to a political paralysis of seemingly intractable division—but also how to tell that story. The discovery of Boys State, particularly in the context of the Texas secession headlines, offered an access point into that conversation that was at once serious and also a little bit playful.
“There's so much that I almost can't engage with on a national political level because it just turns me off, and I think people have such a limited bandwidth for what they're willing to actually think about when it comes to these heavy questions that we're all struggling with,” Moss says. “It's a lot of darkness, and I think that there's something a little bit comic in the decision that was made by the boys at Boys State 2017. It's such an outrageous gesture, but also another real expression of discontent.”
There’s a funhouse mirror world in which Boys State isn’t non-fiction, but a perfectly cast mockumentary in the vein of Parks and Recreation, not only in the necessary levity that the film’s subjects provide but how fully drawn these teen boys’ idiosyncrasies immediately are.
Ben is a hyper-intense, budding political wonk, an arch-conservative who points at the Ronald Reagan pull-string doll he keeps in his room as he pledges, “We live in the greatest democracy in the world, and I feel like the big problem is that there is a lot of people today that are willing to discount the idea that America truly is a great country.”
Robert is a doofy jock, an ego in cowboy boots and a Teen Beat haircut who is so good-natured that, in true Dubya fashion, the camp’s voters seem to forgive any cognitive flaw.
One of the few Black teens at Boys State, René has his eyes set on one of the powerful party chair positions. A firebrand with an electric ability to rouse a crowd and archer’s skill for bullseyeing insults, he’s the one who refutes the criticism that Boys State is a “conservative indoctrination” camp: “I’m like, no. This is what every liberal needs.”
And then there’s Steven, whose Cinderella run for governor provides the emotional heart of the film. A child of Mexican immigrants, he’s aware that his progressive values will face intense scrutiny in the river of red whose votes he’s swimming upstream to win. But he is convinced of the power of listening to find accord and chart a path forward that’s paved with compromise.
He tells his story and you can see the young men in the audiences’ eyes open for the first time. They begin to show signs of emotional empathy transitioning to political empathy. But then those same eyes catch the glint of opportunity: Steven’s involvement in a March For Our Lives anti-gun protest is attack-bait too juicy for the Second Amendment-trumpeting group to pass up.
Therein lies the emotional yin and yang of watching Boys State.
On the one hand it’s inspiring to see a group of teenagers, at a time when so many of their elders look at the world and become cynical and disillusioned, choose to instead become civically engaged, still passionately believing in the power of the system.
These are teens seeing through the circumstances of a dysfunctional world with remarkable clarity, who are developing their political identities in ways far less compartmentalized than generations before. They are Texans with a firm grip on their guns and their God but, for example, they are also progressive when it comes to LGBT rights.
We see these students so engaged with democracy that it’s tempting to feel a sense of calm, that, hey, the kids are alright. Things will be good.
But then there are those unsavory elements of Boys State—an auditorium full of young men cheering about how abortion should be illegal and how they would police women’s bodies, or the ease with which the aspiring politicians embrace mudslinging, gaslighting, and strategy over ideology—and you’re disheartened all over again.
“These young people, as you would expect them to, are absorbing the rhetoric, the strategies, and the norms of our current political discourse, for better and for worse,” Moss says. “So it's not surprising to see them adopt the language and the behavior that has made our politics so dysfunctional. But they also embody the best of our political leadership.”
“It's a little bit of a Rorschach test,” says McBaine. “You're going to bring your own set of politics, your own set of cynicisms, and your own hope to any story like this. Hopefully we've provided a text that you can interact with, with your own kind of ‘where are you at-ness.’”
The end of the film catches the audience up with what the boys have been doing in the two years since that Boys State summer. What’s interesting is that, while their feelings about pursuing elected office have changed somewhat, they are all still politically engaged in very meaningful ways—ways that underline one of the arguably explicit goals of the camp. It’s not hard to imagine these boys being future leaders.
That destiny, so to speak, and the diversity of the paths they are pursuing only seem to make one of the film’s more memorable lines echo that much louder, and perhaps in more damning fashion.
“I don’t hate the man, and I never will,” René says, unloading after an opponent uses a somewhat unscrupulous strategy against him. “I think he’s a fantastic politician. But I don’t think that’s a compliment, either.”