A24’s 2020 documentary “Boys State” is a profound, compelling and important look at American politics through the eyes of its youth, proving itself to be a must-see film in election season.
The movie follows 1000 boys as they travel to Austin, Texas for an annual political event called Boys State. The concept is simple enough: upon arrival, the group is split into two parties, The Nationalists and the Federalists.
Over the course of the week, the teams must create an agenda, decide on a campaign manager and delegates for their party and most importantly nominate a governor, who will eventually go head-to-head with the other party’s nominee.It is a captivating concept, and even a general survey of the event would have been a passable film. What makes “Boys State” so irresistible, though, is the individuals it chooses to focus on and the story that their combined experiences tell.
Background on the film
The film is centered around four boys, all with unique backgrounds and personalities. Their diversity is obvious, as white conservatives make up a large majority of the population in Boys State. The individual who represents that majority is Robert McDougall. The most eye-catching of all the central characters, he’s handsome, charismatic and dead-set on becoming governor.
Steven Garza is the polar opposite of McDougall. He’s heavyset and shy, a member of the Latinx community and almost completely overlooked throughout the first day of the convention. You almost pity him, yet when he takes the stage, everything changes—all his insecurities are shed and he speaks with an overwhelming eloquence and charisma.
With his words, Garza seems to transcend the conference, the film itself and speak directly to the viewer. The final two boys are Rene Otero and Ben Feinstein. Despite the obvious rivalry between McDougall and Garza, Otero and Feinstein are the true enemies. Serving as each party’s head, the two work tirelessly behind the scenes to push their candidate to victory and hinder their opponent in any way possible.
With the cast of characters established in almost fictional convenience, the story begins, twisting and turning its way through the week-long convention.
With each debate, conference and covert strategic meeting, it becomes increasingly clear just how impressive these four boys are, whether they’re wrangling or riling up thousands of others.
For all its great characters, crisp editing and riveting storytelling, the film’s greatest achievement lies in the questions it asks and the themes it uncovers.
One can look at McDougall in 10 minutes in and say: “That’s George Bush in a 17-year-old’s body,” but the truth is, he’s a 17-year-old in a 17-year-olds body. The true thematic crux is that these are just kids. True, it’s inspiring to see the future of America is so politically capable, but at the same time, it’s almost scary.
The Idea Behind the Film
The Boys State is vicious. For all the confidence it inspires to probe these kids’ minds and mannerisms, it becomes clear how deeply and darkly politics has manifested itself into the youth of America. When he lies about his views to get the support of the majority, McDougall defends himself in a confessional, saying “That’s politics, I think.”
No matter how intelligent and idealized the boys are, they are really just kids playing at politics. They are imitating what, in their mind, it means to run a government. That this imitation revolves around treachery and deceit sends a powerful message about America.
“Boys State” is a thoughtful, beautifully shot documentary that tells a compelling story about a week-long political convention. However, it also sends an urgent message, a cry for help, for political bipartisanship – before it’s too late.