REVIEW: Boys State [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 109 minutes
    Release Date: August 14th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: A24 / Apple TV+
    Director(s): Amanda McBaine & Jesse Moss

You play to win.

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss couldn’t have asked for a better result when they decided to film the 2018 Texas Boys State event in Austin. With the randomly selected Nationalists party voting René Otero (a POC liberal hoping to engage with the conservative majority by holding true to fairness and debate) as their State Party Chairman and the Federalists electing Ben Feinstein (a double-amputee and self-proclaimed “hype man” willing to fight dirty in order to win) as theirs, we’re more or less given a reductive glimpse of Democrats versus Republicans amongst a wide base of seventeen year olds chosen by the American Legion to learn about what it takes to build a government. One side seeks potential unity across the aisle while the other hunts for blood.

It’s no surprise then that the filmmakers would begin Boys State with a George Washington quote warning the nation that political parties in general are dangerous because of their inevitable creation of partisan ideology. You don’t have to look further than Nationalist gubernatorial (Governor is the program’s highest office) candidate Robert MacDougall to acknowledge just how far we’ve come from actually standing up for something you believe in when pandering to a vocal minority within one’s constituency can prove a more viable path towards victory. He admits to the camera during his debrief that he lied whenever he could throughout his election speeches. MacDougall took an educated guess about what this specific group of boisterous, young, Evangelical, and gun-toting men would want and catered to it.

You can’t blame him for this thinking since that’s exactly how our president won 2016’s election. Taking that reality one step further, Feinstein decides that the stewardship of his party would follow Donald Trump’s tactics as well. Rather than worry about showing his candidates’ fitness for office, he’d target the opposition by sowing seeds of distrust and bias. Stay vague on policy and aim high with charisma while pointing fingers through slander and underhanded tactics to make it seem like he’s saying something when he’s actually avoiding the necessity to do exactly that. Does he regret the choice? No. He laughs that God might look down upon it, but “politics are politics.” Treat them like a blueprint to a better life for Americans or a game to win.

So it’s almost a miracle that someone could willingly do the former to a fault. That’s not saying Otero is corrupted or corruptible—he simply acknowledges the game aspect and isn’t afraid to make decisions accordingly to retain his job once racially-biased members of his own party fuel an impeachment inquiry almost the instant he’s appointed. The reality, however, is that I’m not sure Steven Garza (Nationalist gubernatorial hopeful) could compromise his beliefs even if he wanted. This is a guy who shies away from nothing. Not his mother having been undocumented before gaining citizenship. Not when images from his Instagram shows he organized a March for Life protest and thus became wrongly labeled “anti-gun.” Ask him a straight question and he’ll give a straight answer.

Put these specific teenagers together under the auspices of working to cross the aisle for progress and you can’t help finding yourselves caught up in a suspense thriller with ramifications much greater than the concept assumes. This is an educational community event populated by kids who are prone to fooling around (the previous year decided the best use of their time was to secede). Should we therefore care about what occurs beyond its entertainment? The easy answer is “No,” but the correct answer is “Yes.” Just look at the faces during the opening credits of Boys State alumni: Bill Clinton, Cory Booker, Rush Limbaugh, and Samuel Alito. To many of these kids, this is a stepping-stone to the big leagues. This experience could shape the United States’ future.

That’s a scary thought no matter which party you call your own because we’re witnessing how tomorrow’s leaders have been paying attention to those of today. They are showing us that they are smart enough to know when their choices are wrong, but shrewd enough to know when it doesn’t matter. They vocalize that what’s said during the election is inconsequential because in their minds (and our reality) everything resets afterwards. You say whatever it takes to win and then do whatever you want instead. Will it guarantee reelection? No. It almost certainly guarantees you’re a one term and done politician. But if the game’s rules are about the here and now, why care about the future? Get in, ingratiate yourself, and walk away a celebrity.

Be Robert MacDougall and teach yourself that your beliefs are more prone to sinking you than pushing you to shore. Be Ben Feinstein and prove to yourself that being loud and angry is enough to confuse citizens into following their emotions regardless of how vehemently their brains fight against that urge. Be René Otero and discover that the confidence to be oneself in the face of baseless adversity is how you prevent the opposition from recruiting your followers on the basis of questioning the strength of your convictions. Or be Steven Garza and watch how integrity and honesty can still overcome when the fight is fair. It’s people like him that scare the GOP into gerrymandering and voter suppression because he’ll win every time if given the opportunity.

Maybe McBaine and Moss got lucky that 2018’s leaders were so perfectly attuned for political fireworks or maybe the scenario ensures drama no matter who rises to the top. That they were able to single these boys out and get the candid reactions they did (especially those that dismantle the actions on-screen) is a testament to their ability to find the story and foster trust. There’s a lot to be hopeful for in what they’ve included throughout Boys State even if the result makes the whole a two-steps forward, one-step back situation. That the net gain is positive in Texas means something. That the boys remain segregated from the girls in these exercises, however, means something too. How can you learn inclusivity if you’re raised to ignore it?

[1] René Otero. Photo Courtesy of Apple
[2] (L-R) Robert MacDougall, Steven Garza. Photo Courtesy of Apple
[3] René Otero. Photo Courtesy of Apple

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