Take over 1,000 teenage boys, divide them into two political parties where they will fight tooth and nail for the next week during a hot Texas summer and you have “Boys State,” the thrilling new documentary coming to Apple TV+.
Every year, the American Legion sponsors a national civics education program where high school juniors attend an intense, week-long camp to build a mock state government from the ground up. The program, which has been running since 1935, is gender separated into Boys State and Girls State and runs somewhere within each state, usually on college campuses. Representatives are chosen from high schools within the state and come together where they run for offices, debate bills and eventually elect a supreme leader to the prized position -- Governor.
Many famous men attended Boys State in their youth, like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Jon Bon Jovi and Mark Wahlberg. The boys whom filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss chose to profile are also destined for greatness, too. There’s Ben, the conniving puppetmaster; Steven, a slow-burning gubernatorial candidate with a steady inner compass; Robert, a Keanu Reeves-esque space cadet with an unexpectedly impressive resume; and René, one of the few Black teens at the conference, who soon finds himself at odds with the rest of his party.
What’s striking about this film is how quickly a civics lesson devolves into chaos. Each day of the boys’ week is filled with campaigning, tense discussions and very outward displays of masculine posturing. A team meeting quickly becomes a push-up contest, and even though these boys eat, sleep and breathe the political life, many aren’t even sure what they even stand for yet.
Also interesting is what the boys choose to focus on. There’s a lot of talk about women’s reproductive rights, without a female anywhere to be found. There’s also a huge conflict over not being pro-gun enough, though more than one of the boys came from high schools that had experienced school shootings. Though the parties are made-up -- Federalist and National -- both parties skew very conservative, and it becomes a battle of which candidate is conservative enough to become the leader.
The movie was very surprising to me as an attendee of 1992 Massachusetts Girls State. I don’t remember it being such a feverish fight for positions. Where these boys endlessly argue and backstab, I remember my week spent with my “town,” talking about our lives on the outside, writing song parodies together and preparing for the talent show. Whether it’s the difference between boys and girls, Texas vs. Massachusetts or the '90s vs. 2018, I can’t tell. But my week was consuming due to the deep secrets we shared, not our desires to get to the top.
The filmmakers expressed a desire to see how the other half functions, and after seeing this film, the juxtaposition of a Girls State movie would be a fascinating comparison. Will they see way less push-ups and way more hugging? Or has this generation become so politically savvy that the game has been upped for all?
This documentary is a fun ride, especially on the brink of a presidential election where politics is on many of our minds. The little microcosm inside Boys State is a concentrated reflection of our country. With the boys being just 17, it lends an interesting energy and, at times, immaturity. On one hand, it is scary to see their raging hormones acutely on display, like they could dangerously boil over at any moment, but, on the other, it’s reassuring to see young people so passionate about making a difference, even if they don’t yet know what they are fighting for.
Keep your eyes on these boys -- no doubt they will go on to do big things. Hopefully they don't flame out in the process.
"Boys State" streams August 14 on Apple TV+