'Boys State' pulls a modern political narrative from Texas teen event

Brad Keefe

It’s hard to imagine anything “feel good” about a documentary that reflects the current state of American politics.

But there is hope to be found in “Boys State,” the documentary that premiered at Sundance London earlier this year before being picked up by A24 Films and released today on Apple TV+.

It’s a strange viewing experience, often difficult to parse whether it’s funny or scary. The answer is probably a fair amount of both.

“Boys State” follows one of a series of statewide gatherings hosted by the American Legion where teens participate in an exercise in forming a mock government.

A somewhat unintentionally ominous title sequence shares past participants in these events, from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton, the point being that this is a launching pad for politically ambitious teenagers. Filmed during the 2018 incarnation of the Texas edition of Boys State, the documentary focuses on several young men across the political spectrum.

Ben Feinstein is a double-amputee from San Antonio who idolized Ronald Reagan and sees the political process in the sort of bare-knuckles way that you might expect from a young Republican. Steven Garza is a young man inspired by the likes of Bernie Sanders and his home state’s Beto O’Rourke, a door-knocking idealist focused on the politics of change.

The event that brings them and about 1,000 other young men together divides the group into two parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists. They then go through the process of establishing party leadership, setting a platform and ultimately putting forward candidates for mock office, including governor.

Directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine take their intimate multi-camera access and create a doc that feels a bit like “Hoop Dreams” meets C-Span.

The forming of party platforms is one of the more chilling moments of the movie. It is, after all, young, mostly white teens in Texas. Immigration policy, abortion rights and, particularly, gun rights are prominent.

When Ben learns Steven actually participated in an Austin March for Our Lives event, he pounces on what he sees as political opportunity.

Elsewhere, a would-be candidate for governor runs on a stringent anti-choice platform before privately admitting that he’s personally pro-choice. He just viewed lying about his position as more politically expedient.

When Steven wonders why there’s not a more-inclusive “People’s State” event (there are also corresponding Girls State events), he’s met with incredulity for even asking.

But as things settle into the race for governor, there’s hope to be found. Maybe the kids are all right. At least some of them.

Moss and McBaine are a bit too light on setup and context, but they key in on their primary characters and evoke some moments of edge-of-your-seat drama.

I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide how much we can take away from a thousand boys cosplaying politicians when comparing to modern politics. But “Boys State” is a great addition to an Apple TV+ service that’s still starved for additions to its early library.

“Boys State”

Streaming now on Apple TV+

4 stars out of 5

"Boys State"