Boys State

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Fascinating, sometimes grimly so, Boys State is a documentary about a Texas program designed to educate high schoolers in the intricacies and mechanisms of democracy. It’s been run by the American Legion since 1935 and claims to be a “week-long experiment in self-governance” during which young men run for office, get a team around themselves, organise into parties, committees and cabals. En route, the cream (or scum) rises to the top, and the sharp elbowed and quick-tongued win out over the more thoughtful and considered.

They’re not an entirely self-selecting group. In early interviews conducted by Legion members in full uniform, it’s obvious what sort of “boy” is being sought – one whose patriotism is unquestioned, who all but worships the flag, honours his ancestors, takes as a given the fact of America’s place in the world and mocks as “socialist” any idea that smacks of collective organisation.

A spirit of religious revivalism hangs over the whole thing. The hands on hearts as the state anthem is played, the boys’ bodies taut with fervour. To this European eye it all looks a bit much, as if by trying to duck one grand collectivising principle (socialism) another (patriotism) had been embraced too heartily.

The boys (they’re young men but I’m going to stick with boys, since a Lord of the Flies spirit seems to be afoot) are then organised into two parties, the Nationalists and Federalists, before the organising and campaigning begins in earnest.

Candidates begin to emerge. There’s Robert MacDougall, handsome, assertive, quick of thought, an organiser, a self-promoter. Steven Garza, a self-confessed progressive, a likeable, listening sort who looks like he’s going to get the tall-poppy treatment. Politically between the two of them is Ben Feinstein, a double amputee insistent that his lack of limbs doesn’t make him any different while also asserting that it does – he knows how to fight. Also somewhere in the middle is René Otero, clearly an orator, a centrist able to duck and weave. Much later we meet Eddy Proietti Conti who, when asked what his best feature is, replies, “My abs.” There’s not a lot of levity in this film, so thanks, Eddy.

The boys with hands on hearts
Plighting their troth

That’s enough of the individuals, back to the baying mob, and what a depressing indictment of the confrontational political system it is. It’s politics as a sporting event, where shouting “USA USA” counts as a political position, and any new proposal is dismissed before even being considered. A terrifying display of politics as hysteria. A jock love-in. A lynch mob.

The balls-out libertarians are in the ascendant and they’re froth mouthed at any suggested curtailment of their liberty, having missed the central fact of politics, that it is a system designed to curtail freedom – that’s what laws do, it’s what a government is.

Along the way we learn that among the light-hearted motions that this congress has managed to pass are the banning of cargo shorts and pineapple pizza. Presumably because they’re “gay” – the whiff of homophobia is ever-present.

Somehow, in this chaos of “go-team” rallies, the cameras of co-directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (and their heroic editors Jeff Seymann Gilbert and Michael Vollmann) start to pick out patterns. Cliques coalesce, teams assemble themselves, positions are taken, the mob is, to an extent, neutralised by notions of decorum and protocol.

By the end, no spoilers, amid the scheming and dirty tricks, a shaky sense of normality has been established, votes are taken, boys fight campaigns and win/lose, a new generation of youthful politicians get their first taste of the action. Some of these people will probably eventually turn up on the national stage.

It’s not easy to watch Boys State and come away feeling optimistic, but it is possible. There is idealism here, and ideas, and people who will stand up and insist on being heard above the rabble. Like The Overnighters, a previous McBaine and Moss collaboration, there is some optimism to be gleaned from what has been far too often a depressing display of sub-optimal humanity.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

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