Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Education and politics are two different schools of thought, especially during this turbulent year. The Pandemic has disrupted the way students learn, how businesses operate and has increased divisiveness among race and party lines. In the wake of Joe Biden’s bombshell announcement in selecting Kamala Harris has his VP candidate comes a documentary that explores the political process through the eyes of teenage boys.
Titled BOYS STATE, this is political science on steroids.
A thousand high school juniors from around the state bus into a college town or state capital and create a mock government. The program happens all across the U.S. for both boys and girls (appropriately called Girls State) and is sponsored by the American Legion.
I’d like to know the backstory on what motivated directors Amanda McBaine and Jess Moss (THE OVERNIGHTERS) to tackle this subject because it is absurd, fascinating, and totally engrossing. I thought it was a joke, but the opening credits highlight an alumnus that includes Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Cory Booker. Beyond the political spectrum, BOYS STATE has Michael Jordan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Armstrong, Jon Bon Jovi, and Roger Ebert among its alumni.
The time it must have taken for McBaine and Moss to decide on their subjects is also incredible; going from 1,200 students to focus on a half dozen is no easy task. First, the kids have to make it through an interview even to be considered part of weeklong camp – which happens to be in Austin (because, well, Texas). Next, they are divided into two political parties: Nationalists and Federalists.
Now the fun really begins.
The filmmakers capture it all. Teenage boys acting goofy. The awkwardness that exists even outside of school. And how political decorum amongst high schoolers isn’t much different than elected officials who have served twenty years in office.
Things go from funny to severe as election looms. The ones to watch are the party organizers, Rene and Ben, and two men running to be the gubernatorial nominee for the Nationalist party, Robert and Steven. Of the four, Steven is the standout. It’s not because he resides in my hometown of Houston, either. In his run for governor, he’s a bundle of nerves. Seemingly melting in the Texas heat outside and wiping the sweat from his forehead, Steven is not Mr. Popularity. He’s a quiet tactician until it comes time to open his mouth, then he’s got more firepower than a Ghost Pepper.
Considering our current political state of affairs, BOYS STATE could have easily been overly cynical at the governing process. But the simple fact that Boys State is a real thing and not a bunch of hokum refutes any cynical tones it may show. While things don’t play out quite like a Frank Capra picture, it does show a man’s measure and a voice that can be heard clear across the Texas panhandle.
The A24/Apple release will debut on Apple TV+ on August 14.