René Otero in the documentary Boys State.
Photo: Apple TV+
Midway through Boys State, Robert MacDougall confesses that, despite having just given a speech insisting that babies are being killed before they have a chance in the world, he isn’t actually anti-abortion. Robert, a strapping 18-year-old with the luxuriant mane of a Richard Linklater protagonist and the undented self-assurance of someone who’s gotten everything he’s wanted so far in life, is running for office in the mock government program he’s participating in. And he’s out to win — which, for him, means trading in his personal beliefs for ones that will play better with what he perceives his audience to be. “This is a very, very conservative group we have here,” he informs the camera in the aside of a private interview. “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there, so I chose to pick a new stance.” “That’s politics!” he declares, and then, with an uncharacteristic flicker of doubt, he amends that with “… I think.”
Boys State, an enormously engaging documentary from Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, might be described as a movie about 1,100 teenagers all trying to figure out what politics is. Set in Austin, it observes the Texas iteration of an annual event the American Legion has organized around the country since the 1930s. It’s divided by gender, and one of the reasons McBaine and Moss didn’t opt for Girls State instead is that, in 2017, Texas Boys State made national headlines by voting that the state should secede — a decision that one Statesmen (as they’re called) speculates started as a stunt and somehow escalated into an actuality. It’s the kind of call you might expect for a bunch of bored, hormonal kids shut up in conference rooms and government buildings for a week. Then again, you could just as easily apply that description of what happened to the most recent presidential election. The boys of Boys State might be a teeming temporary community just as likely to make dick jokes and drop into push-up competitions as to talk policy and campaign on their own behalf, but the filmmakers needn’t stretch to make their subjects feel like a reflection of the American political id.
Those subjects have the capacity to surprise, though. The 2018 Texas Statesmen skew white and, as Robert observes, conservative, but maybe not as much as they used to, and McBaine and Moss put their thumb on the scale by focusing on a quad of participants that reflect a more diverse experience. Robert is the most familiar type, the popular kid trying to coast on charisma into a win for governor, the top position in the program. His main opponent in the primaries — the participants are randomly sorted into two parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, and tasked with creating platforms — is Steven Garza, a solemn progressive whose mother was undocumented and who transforms when he’s called upon to speak in front of an audience. The chairperson of their party, the Nationalists, is René Otero, an amusingly acerbic liberal who recently moved from Chicago, and who muses that he “can be a delegate for black people here.” On the Federalist side is the relentless Ben Feinstein, who owns a Ronald Reagan action figure and who sees his success, as someone with two amputated legs, as proof of the work ethic he believes the country is built on. He sets out to run for governor himself, but when that doesn’t work out, pivots to being the power behind the throne, working on behalf of a candidate everyone admiringly compares to Ben Shapiro.
Boys State belongs to that realm of documentaries, like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom and Cheer, that take their structure and draw their suspense from the competitions they chronicle. It’s a subgenre that tends toward the crowd-pleasing and, sometimes, the cute, especially when its subjects are young people playing at supposedly adult activities. Boys State definitely gets its kicks out of footage of kids at a Capitol building podium proposing “the relocation of all Prius drivers to the state of Oklahoma.” But McBaine and Moss are the team behind 2014’s The Overnighters, a wrenching film about the North Dakota oil boom, and they’re interested in something beyond the contrast of adolescent faces and grown-up topics — or, for that matter, serving up simple optimism about Gen Z when taking in these young men at the cusps of their political lives.
They find it in Ben and Steven, and the opposing schools of thought they embody when it comes to how to approach an election. Ben opts for an unapologetic “shock and awe” strategy that involves a social-media blitz and a bad-faith accusation of bias against René. Steven runs a heartbreakingly earnest, on-the-level campaign that includes a lot of one-on-one conversations and speaking frankly about his support of divisive issues. What happens when they collide is a reminder that these teenagers aren’t removed from the current climate, even if most of them aren’t old enough to vote yet. They’re just as buffeted about by uncertain facts and shows of confidence, by tribalism and attempts to reach across the table as anyone else. And that, Robert? That’s politics.
*A version of this article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!