As you hop across your channels and streaming services, looking for something (anything?) new to watch, you might cross paths with Boys State, a documentary that just hit Apple TV+ today. It’s a fascinating, depressing and oddly inspiring look at politics in America—if it was driven by high school guys.
A little background: The Boys State and Girls State programs are sponsored by the American Legion (and the American Legion Auxiliary) across the country. They’re intended to teach participating youth about (according to the Legion’s website) “the rights, privileges and responsibilities of franchised citizens” through intensive, week-long programs. The participants essentially form their own governments, complete with presidents, congresses, bill proposals and feisty debates.
But sometimes things doesn’t go quite as planned. In 2017, the Texas Boys State voted to secede from the Union.
Now, the Texas Boys State program falls under the scrutiny of directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine here, and we find not just a bunch of 17-year-old boys goofing off (though, admittedly, we see that, too) but a microcosm of American politics.
You won’t find a full-blown review of Boys State on our site: We don’t typically review documentaries. So be warned, if you choose to tune in, you’ll need to navigate a few bad words and a bit of adolescent sexual banter. But this also might be one of the year’s most-discussed (and, according to Rotten Tomatoes, best-reviewed) documentaries.
The film primarily focuses on four guys, but two quickly rise to become the main players on the doc’s stage. Ben is a double amputee who lives and breathes politics and who owns a Ronald Reagan action figure. Steven is a quiet, kinda chubby kid from Houston who aims to win the Boys State governorship—campaigning against the well-groomed high-school Alpha males who also have their eyes on the prize.
The Legionnaires’ program divides its attendees into “Federalists” and “Nationalists,” not Republicans and Democrats. But real-world politics are, of course, inescapable. Given that this Boys State campaign takes place in Texas, the participants are overwhelmingly conservative, with strong feelings on abortion (bad) and gun rights (good). No one running for Boys State office is going to get far by leaning too far left—something that the progressive Steven knows well. And when pictures start circulating in Boys State showing that Steven once participated in a liberally-tinged protest, it threatens to become a full-blown scandal that Steven must spin as best he can.
“I am pro guns, but I am also a common-sense person,” he says. “Someone should not be able to own a rocket launcher.”
And so the rocky week goes. Major players are threatened with impeachment. Candidates try to manipulate the electorate by pandering. The politics get dirty. And then they get dirtier. Parties are charged with corruption. Seventeen-year-old kids are dragged through the mud. “You have to use personal attacks … in order to differentiate yourself at all,” Ben suggests.
But if mudslinging and manipulation are on full display in Boys State, so is the curious beauty and idealism of the American political system.
Our system of government ain’t perfect. Our Founding Fathers knew that from the outset, and from nearly the very beginning (when John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were duking it out for the top prize) politics has been quite messy.
And yet, for more than 200 years, what Alexander Hamilton called the “grand experiment” has worked. Through periods of corruption and reform, through ever-changing cultures and ideals, in the midst of good presidents and bad, the United States has survived and often thrived.
Whatever you think of the kids in Boys State, many of them clearly take their politics seriously. Some revel in the game. Some try to transcend it. But you don’t see a lot of indifference here. And as these small dramas play out, you can’t help but wonder we’ll hear again from some of the 17-year-olds we see on a larger stage.