Political theater: ‘BOYS STATE’ directors capture a riveting, begrimed democracy, papered in teen hormones


Preston Barta // Features Editor

Filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss are no strangers to uncovering the hard truth. In their stirring 2014 documentary The Overnighters, they painted a devastating portrait of communal disruption, unveiling the human consequences of the oil boom in North Dakota and a local pastor’s controversial program. Now, McBaine and Moss have created an audacious, impeccably captured work that examines a Texas mock government program.

Set in 2018 Austin, Boys State is a documentary that observes the Texas iteration of an annual event that has been around since the 1930s. The American Legion-sponsored program, divided by gender, brings together hundreds of teenage youths to place them in an incubator for aspiring politicians. (Neil Armstrong, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton were all members.) They hold mock elections and legislatures but have authentic arguments about gun laws, religion, abortion and immigration. However, as the title indicates, the film centers specifically on the guys (likely because in 2017, Texas Boys State made national news by voting that the Lone Star state should secede from the United States).

Shot with a fly-on-the-wall approach, McBaine and Moss follow a group of participants who are randomly sorted into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. Each of the members is tasked with creating platforms. What proceeds is a compelling experimental essay of sorts that takes the shape of a reality show, courtroom drama and character study, with the occasional wit splash to hit a larger target of emotions.

Some participants like 18-year-old Robert MacDougall ditch their personal beliefs to be the popular vote, while others, such as solemn progressive Steven Garza, speak from the heart at the cost of ruffling a few feathers. No matter what side of the political fence you sit on, there are questions posed throughout to make you think more deeply about your wants and desires for your state and country.

Fresh Fiction recently spoke with McBaine and Moss about their filmmaking process, what they have taken away from it and what it has taught them about themselves and their country. Check out Boys State this weekend on Apple TV+ after reading our conversation below.

Preston Barta: Watching this film, I found myself so terrified by the state of things and what people think the world should be, but also just extremely touched by the end. It’s comforting to know there are still good people out there who want to move the world in a more progressive direction. Because you’ve both been a part of so many great works, how much have you noticed that you’ve grown as human beings? What have you picked up along the way and put forward in your life?

Jesse Moss: “Yeah, I mean, I think that’s why you do the work, why documentary work is amazing, because you get out from your corner of the world and you see other people, and lives, and experiences that are really different. And for me, it’s really about just trying to understand something that doesn’t make sense to me sometimes, or I’m curious about. I think the work – we’ve been thinking about this in relation to another project, actually – but I think it really forces you… I like it because I’m like [Steven Garza], maybe a bit of a quieter, shy person, and it forces me to extend myself and meet people that I wouldn’t meet. Often, they’re really different from me, like [Pastor Jay Reinke] in The Overnighters, just like a conservative Lutheran pastor. You would think, on paper, you have nothing in common, really, but that experience really moved me.”

“And I think that this film was motivated by a similar desire, which was to engage with this unsolvable and intractable question of political division in our country, and not looking for an answer necessarily, but just as a citizen, as a person to engage with that question. And what I really didn’t expect was to be so profoundly moved by the young men that we met, particularly Steven, even though that’s what we’re searching for in making these very ground-level character-driven films. Steven was a real diamond in the rough, I guess, and when we met him, he was in a room full of louder, brasher boys. But he had a quiet, old soul quality that just touched us, and grabbed us, and made us want to see where he would go.”

“And little did we know that he would go so far and move us so deeply, but I think we all continue to find inspiration in his integrity, passion, willingness to be a political leader in that true sense, and his willingness to form these bridges across lives. All of those lessons he provides, for someone so young seem like lessons of a wiser person. That has been and continues to be really meaningful for us to have him in our lives.”

Amanda McBaine: “I think we can go into any one of these projects with a set of questions or ideas we want to explore, and they’re big ones, like health and democracy, but we always end up in this place of being most grounded in the human experience. For instance: What is the human toll of oil extraction? As storytellers, we’re looking for the people to carry us through. So, inevitably with all of these films, it’s these individuals that we are lucky enough to find and then lucky enough for them to be game for us to follow as deeply as we do. Those relationships are really what, I think, end up being the nourishment for us.”

“They’re always complicated people. And I think that, to me, is the human experience and the stories that I most respond to. In this story, we’re close. We experienced this event, the polarization, and everything as they experienced it. And I think watching them, these people who may be very different from you or very similar to you, go through this, you are forced to ask yourself: What would you do in their shoes? What would you do in this circumstance? Who are you in this? And that reflexivity in these kinds of stories is part of the meaning of the work beyond the bigger meaning, which is meeting these extraordinary people because I really do think everybody can be your teacher.”

It wasn’t until I saw the documentary, Cameraperson, that I really began to understand the process of what it is like for filmmakers to be in the thick of it. I’m curious about the process for you guys, being there trying to capture this as organically and honestly as possible. And I know you just said, Jesse, that you are not trying to present the answers, you don’t want to shape this documentary to offer those answers, but at least capture what it is so people can just decide for themselves and observe.

When did you guys recognize that this was the best way to approach material like this? Kind of like filming a National Geographic or a nature documentary, when you see something happen and then you want to intervene – or capture somebody who may have a misguided view and want to have a discussion with them but can’t.

Moss: “Well, part of the risk is we really didn’t know what the experience would offer us. It was not something that we had direct experience with. As young people growing up, we didn’t go through the program, so what it would actually look like and feel like was a bit of a mystery to us. And, also, what the paths that our respective characters would take through the experience were completely unknown. When I think about documentary work and our approach, and my approach particularly, I’m reminded a little bit of The Terminator. If you bear with me here for a second: He goes back in time and has to go through the time portal naked because he can’t bring all that back. It’s like you just have to leave behind a lot of that stuff, and I think the camera’s a very effective tool to allow you to do that.”

“It’s important to say, though, that you don’t leave your politics behind. You come as a person, with all of your subjectivity, and you bring that to the decisions you make of who you cast and where you focus your attention. But I think you also have to leave a lot behind. First of all, we’re going from San Francisco to Texas, and just letting go of the clichés and judgment sometimes and being a little bit more openhearted and open-minded than you might normally be are all important. And I think making this kind of documentary work takes a lot of patience, too.”

“I think the method is just to be patient, present, and build relationships. Now, usually, you have much more time to build relationships in verité documentary work. You have years sometimes. With The Overnighters, we had 18 months of production to really forge a relationship. And here, with these young men, they were forged in a much more accelerated time frame, but they still allowed us to be present for those personal moments.”

What about the process of unpacking them?

Moss: “Yes. That comes next. What do you think they mean for the story, these moments, the deeper layers of meaning, and what they mean to you, and that’s the film you’re actually trying to make, and the story you’re actually trying to tell. And this stuff gets written and rewritten from the conception of a project through the production and the post-production, and now we’re in this new phase of the film’s life where we’re actually, with our young men, who are now two years older than they were in this experience, really having a conversation about what it meant to make those choices at that time, and how they see them now through the prism of our current politics. So, it’s sort of a living organism in that way, too, which is what’s exciting about documentary filmmaking. It’s not fixed in time, even though the moment we captured is.”

That is really well put.

McBaine: “I think Jesse and I are also pretty comfortable with being uncomfortable and wanting the documentary to surprise us and force us outside of ourselves. So, I think that’s a certain person, maybe, that gets into not only documentary but specifically verité documentary, because it gets very intimate. For instance, as a woman going into this all-male space, I knew I would feel very other, but I also knew that I could learn something from this, and I knew that I was coming with preconceived notions that I wanted to question for myself, and to some degree that happened.”

“Now, I also know that means that I come as a director with a certain set of inherent … As open-minded as I am, my directing is going to show up already in who I choose to cast. I have an inherent non-interest in the alpha male guy who’s going to be voted most likely to be president. Whatever it is, I’m going to choose people. As different as our four main guys are, they probably are a different choice than somebody else might make. So, that’s already a directing choice that I feel like I brought some of my female gaze to.”

For more information about the Boys State program, visit texasboysstate.com or legion.org.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.