Documentary “Boys State”, which won the US Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, gives us a close and intimate glimpse into a bunch of boys who may be the future of American politics someday. Regardless of whether you can agree to their various political positions and opinions or not, you will come to admire them a lot for their considerable intelligence and ambition, and it is often electrifying or unnerving to observe how they show more of the making of future politicians as being driven further by their mock political competition.
The main background of the documentary is an event called Boys State, an annual summer leadership program for junior high school students which has been sponsored by the American Legion since 1937. This event has been held in each of American states every year along with its female counterpart event sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary (It is called Girls State, of course), and the opening part of the documentary shows us that various public figures ranging from Bill Clinton and Cory Booker to Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh participated in this time-honored youth program during their early years.
Mainly following several different adolescent boys attending the Boys State program in Huston, Texas in 2018, the documentary lets us immersed into the developing situation among them and many other participants. Individually selected from different parts of Texas, all of them are pretty bright kids to say the least, and everyone is certainly eager to be chosen as leaders by their peers, but only few of them will become quite more prominent as going through a number of mock political processes.
Once they are evenly divided into two mock political groups called Nationalist and Federalist, the competition is commenced with considerable fierceness in both of these two groups. In case of Ben Feinstein, a savvy disabled kid who is an ardent conservative as shown from his room full of many political stuffs including a Ronald Reagan doll, he quickly takes the center of the platform for Federalist, and we are not so surprised to see him later getting appointed as the chairman of his party without any opposition.
In contrast, Nationalist kids have troubles with gathering forces right from the start. Although a smart African American kid named René Otero is eventually selected as their party chairman, he often faces small and big problems inside his party as trying to make a strong platform for a number of potential candidates for several different public positions including the state governor, which is, of course, the top prize coveted a lot by both Nationalist and Federalist boys.
As René tactfully handles those obstacles inside his party, a few boys in his party slowly come to accumulate political momentum. In case of Robert MacDougall, this laid-back lad is quite confident at first that he will attract enough votes for becoming an eligible gubernatorial candidate, and that turns out to be pretty easy for him, but, what do you know, he later happens to face an unexpected dark horse. Although he initially struggled to get enough votes, Steve Garza, who is the third kid of a Mexican immigrant, swiftly rises from the bottom to the top after delivering an earnest speech which humbly starts but then becomes a lot more exciting and appealing than expected, and Robert clearly discerns that Steve is a pretty strong opponent which may beat him in the upcoming primary election.
While trying to be as courteous as possible to Steve on the stage, Robert also feels the urge to beat his opponent by any means necessary. As a matter of fact, he sometimes does not openly express the certain aspects of his political belief in front of his potential supporters, and he openly admits in front of the camera at one point that he now understands more of why many politicians often lie or evade in public.
Once the candidates are eventually determined in both parties, the mood becomes quite more intense than before, and, not so surprisingly, a number of dirty tactics are used as the election day is approaching. While René tries hard to maintain integrity and principles for his party, Ben goes all the way for dirty tactics because winning is important above all else in his viewpoint, and it goes without saying that their political contrast often feels like an unnerving reflection of the current political status in US.
I do not dare to tell you anything about the results revealed around the end of the program, but I can tell you instead that directors/producers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine did a competent job of juggling several different narratives which eventually converge together with lots of excitement and anticipation. As reflected by a number of brief amusing scenes, many boys shown in the documentary are sometimes not so serious about their program, but most of them eventually become quite serious and passionate about their mock political experience, and that is why the final moments in the documentary feel so powerful with contrasting emotions.
Overall, “Boys State” is a compelling presentation of one youthful side associated with American politics, and its many vivid and energetic moments made me both hopeful and skeptical about the future of American politics. Yes, these kids in the documentary may become a lot more jaded during next several years, but they are ready to advance further nonetheless as reaching for their respective political aspirations, and I will not be surprised if I hear more news about some of them in the future.