Boys State (and its sister program, Girls State) is run by the American Legion in locations around the country, and famous alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, and nonpoliticians such as Michael Jordan and Bruce Springsteen. Upon arriving in Austin, Texas, the students in the film are divided into two parties—the Federalists and the Nationalists—and tasked with developing political platforms and slates of candidates to run against each other. The exercise is meant to encourage compromise and consensus-building. What results is, unsurprisingly, far more complicated.
Moss and McBaine render the entire program as a gripping competition, focusing on different “star” characters. The teen cohort’s politics seem to lean rightward, perhaps reflecting Texas’s status as a red state, but the film foregrounds participants from across the political spectrum. Much more fascinating than the students’ beliefs, however, is the ways their debates echo the hard-line partisanship of contemporary politics, rather than imagining what a different future could look like.
In the film, the Nationalist and Federalist parties have fierce internal debates over abortion rights and gun control, in which many students recite canned lines that would be at home on cable news. One participant named Robert Macdougall, a charismatic teen with his eyes on the governorship, admits to the camera that he is personally pro-choice, despite taking a hard-line anti-abortion stance in public. “I’m playing this like a game,” he says. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart.” Other splinter groups draw oversize attention to headline-grabbing concepts such as secession from the United States or the impeachment of elected leaders, despite the infeasibility of getting majority support for them.
This is how Boys State starts to feel depressingly realistic. In it, young people don’t chart a better path for the country; they simply mirror the way things are. Most of the students involved, even the cynical politicos and the high-spirited rabble-rousers, seem pleasant and engaged. When tempers rise, the arguments still play out with a modicum of political decorum. But that’s part of the problem: The veneer of civility and good gamesmanship doesn’t do much to solve these kids’ inability to compromise.
The film’s biggest star is Steven Garza, a soft-spoken Latino teen from the Houston area who says his interest in politics germinated during Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Though Garza is not shy about his left-leaning politics, he becomes something of an underdog hero on campus because of his unshowy style of public speaking. As the film’s narrative narrows onto the big gubernatorial election in its last act, the path of Garza’s candidacy is its most captivating arc, playing out in parallel to the gung-ho conservatism of Ben Feinstein, a rival who is more adept at marshalling public opinion with scandal-focused shock tactics.