‘Boys State’ Review: Even Teen Politics Is a Dirty Business in Sundance-Winning Documentary

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s film pays lip service to finding common ground but winds up illustrating how impossible that has become

Was it a simpler time back in January, when “Boys State” won the jury prize as the best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival? Maybe it was – certainly, it was a time before the pandemic really came to our shores, before life as we knew it ground to a halt, before George Floyd was killed and cities erupted, before a Black and Asian woman became a major party’s presumed nominee for vice president.

And in those times (which really weren’t so long ago, or so innocent), maybe it was possible to sit through the opening half hour of “Boys State,” meeting a group of 16- and 17-year-old boys from Texas who are interested in government, and not cringe at what you heard. But it’s a little harder to do that only seven months later, with “Boys State” coming to Apple TV+ on August 14.

These days, to watch these would-be legislators assemble in Austin, Texas for the annual week-long exercise in mock government organized by the American Legion is troubling unless you can get behind watching a group of teenagers (all male, almost all white) compete to see who can offer the staunchest defense of the Second Amendment and the most impassioned attack on abortion rights.

Buzzwords are flung hither and yon, and the gist of what we hear is almost shockingly tone-deaf in these times: “Hard work can still get you where you want to go,” “The more we focus on race or gender the less we see each other as individuals” and the privileged white boy’s apparent new battle cry, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed!”

Then again, the fact that you may well cringe at what you see and hear in “Boys State” does not make it a bad movie. In a way, what it does is comparable to “American Factory,” the film that won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature a couple of weeks after “Boys State” won Sundance. On paper, “American Factory,” a film about a Chinese factory taking over a closed American auto plant, seemed likely to show us how international cooperation could actually work in these troubled times; the truth turned out to be a lot tougher and more complicated than that, and to its credit that film was as much about the failure of international ventures as the success.

Like that film, “Boys State” manages to confound our expectations. Going into a documentary about 1,000 boys from Texas working together to form their own government, you’ll probably think – at least I did – that it’ll show how maybe things don’t have to be as divisive or as ugly as they now seem. But when it ends, depending on your mood and your political inclinations, you may well think that divisive and ugly are now inexorably baked into our DNA, and that politics are designed to find them and bring them out.

Dirty tricks? Negative campaigning unencumbered by facts? A naked lust for power of any kind, even if it’s just symbolic? Positions adopted out of opportunism rather than conviction? Empty slogans deployed in lieu of actual reasoning? Thinly disguised racism? Yeah, they’re all here, and for the most part once can only hope that these kids will either grow out of it or find careers somewhere other than politics.

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (“The Overnighters”) put a political spin on the time-honored techniques used to cover big competitions like this in films like “Spellbound” – get a bunch of cameras, spread out and follow a lot of different people, adjusting as you go and crossing your fingers that at least a couple of the people you picked will end up being significant players in what happens.

The setting is the American Legion’s annual Boys State gathering in Texas, one of many the organization has been sponsoring around the country since 1935. (There are Girls State gatherings, too.) The movie points out that Boys State alum include Dick Cheney, Cory Booker and Rush Limbaugh – though from the looks of the kids in the movie, Booker in definitely the outlier in that group, as is the one Bernie Bro we meet in “Boys State.”

The kids are randomly assigned to parties named the Federalists and the Nationalists, and asked to come up with platforms, chose a party chairman and select candidates for offices, the biggest of which is governor. But the random draw and the fact that this is happening in Texas means that you definitely won’t get a liberal party and a conservative party, but rather two conservative parties who just use different buzzwords for their pro-life, pro-gun, pro-freedom platforms.

And really, in the early going it’s all about those buzzwords. “What do you stand for?” asks one delegate of Ben Feldstein, who’s announced plans to run for office.

“I stand for freedom,” Feldstein says.

The first delegate smirks. “Bold stand.”

Feldstein is one of the central players in the film, a wheelchair-bound teen who is elected party chair of the Federalists, and whose initially inspiring story is somewhat tainted when we figure out that he’s an opportunistic hustler who specializes in smear tactics.

The chair of the Nationalists, meanwhile, is Rene Otero, one of the few Black faces in the group. He seems pretty thoughtful and eloquent – which makes him an anomaly in a group that, when it comes time to introduce proposals in their mock state government, immediately comes up with nonsense like banning cargo shorts and sending all Prius drivers to Oklahoma, “because we don’t want them here!”

“Is Boys State a joke?” asks Otero. “We should not be voting on stuff like this.” This gets him booed, and after he also nixes a proposal to secede from the U.S., some of his party members launch a recall effort.

The two main Nationalist candidates to run for governor are Steven Gorza, a thoughtful Mexican-American teen who once made the mistake (a mistake to this group, at least) of leading a San Antonio march for gun control, and Robert MacDougall, whose slogan is “moral government for the people” and whose campaign speeches consist of him yelling about guns (he’s for them!) and abortion (he’s against it!).

In many ways, Garza, the child of immigrant parents, is the hero of “Boys State.” McDougal, on the other hand, seems to be a stick figure made up of conservative talking points – until he admits to the camera that he’s actually pro-choice, and is only acting like a rabid anti-abortionist because it’ll get him votes.

“That’s politics, I think,” he says. “Being here gives me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get into office.” For a while, he even considers resigning from his race against Gorza, knowing he’s up against a more serious and better candidate; it’s enough to briefly humanize him, but only briefly.

For their part, the Federalists put up a candidate distinguished mostly by how full of himself he is. Things get nasty and underhanded and messy – boys will be boys, politicians will be politicians, and when you put them together you don’t get a sterling vision of the future of America.

But you do get an entertaining movie whose central figures are judiciously chosen to give us just enough balance that we don’t despair. Were Garza and Otero the two teenagers out of 1,000 not fueled by testosterone, bluster and Fox news sloganeering? Almost certainly not – but they were clearly in the minority, and the film focuses on their stories at least partly because it would be too depressing if it didn’t.

Though it has its inspirational moments, “Boys State” is definitely not the feel-good story you might be expecting: It pays lip service to finding common ground but winds up illustrating how impossible that has become. Maybe they’re producing better potential leaders over at Girls State?