SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE DOCUMENTARY BOYS STATE
Boys State is a documentary, and it’s also a horror movie. It might be the scariest goddamn thing I’ve seen all year. Scarier than the “tech bros are killing us” parable of The Invisible Man, or the eco/body horrors Sea Fever and The Beach House, or the Harvey Weinstein-inspired The Assistant. All of those movies scared the hell out of me, but there is something unbelievably unshakable about Boys State because it rejects a certain ideology I’ve heard repeated in liberal circles for a long time. “When all the old people die and take their shitty old-fashioned opinions with them,” the saying goes (um, I’m translating loosely here), “and when the Boomers stop fucking us, everything will be better.” Silly us. The brainwashing has already taken hold, and the future generations profiled in Boys State are just as terrible, just as patriarchal, just as morally bankrupt as their forebears.
Is that a harsh way to speak about teenagers? Or, as I kept thinking while watching Boys State, fucking children? I guess so. The individuals featured here are mostly 17-year-old high school seniors. These are the “nice young men” we’re supposed to envision and pity whenever someone fitting this mold—usually white, usually but not exclusively Christian, usually upper middle class to straight wealthy—sexually assaults someone. No, they’re not technically adults, so forgive me, or whatever, if my ire seems outsized given their youth. But the zealousness with which these boys speak! How certain they are of these political beliefs that have, I assume, been handed down to them by older family members and religious elders and all those other people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo! How glowingly they praise people like Ben Shapiro, a man who literally thought a wet pussy was the sign of an unhealthy vagina! I was aghast, and then I wanted to throw something!
Let me back up: Boys State is a documentary that follows around a group of teenage boys in Texas who take part in the Boys State program organized by the American Legion. In operation since 1935 and held all around the country, wherever the American Legion is active, the Boys State program boasts a number of high-profile alumni (Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker), and is designed to help politically minded teenagers become more savvy and educated regarding the electoral process and how parties function. There is also a Girls State program, but this doc doesn’t follow it, and I admit I was a little disappointed that filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine never interact or question the American Legion organizers themselves. There’s no input from the American Legion regarding what they hope these teens will get out of the program, or how they’ve adapted it in recent years (has anything changed in the time of Trump?), and in fact, that lack of perspective seems to support Dustin’s experience with the Boys State program as one that continues good-old-boys networks. (Have you read Dustin’s review yet? Do that!)
Anyway, the boys apply, are interviewed by the American Legion members (we see one boy speaking solemnly about how “Christ is my role model,” and then get admitted into the program, natch), and then converge onto a college campus. Once there, the boys are randomly divided into two groups, the Nationalists and the Federalists (historical names that here are not given any historical significance; none of the boys mentions whether they will attempt to live up to those parties’ political legacies), and the participants must decide whether they want to run for office. Do they want to be a party chairman, which would give them a significant amount of power within their own group? Do they want to run for something less exciting but still respectable, like treasurer? Or, do they want to be governor? Everyone wants to be governor, and there can be only one: Each party puts forth a nominee, and then at the end of Boys State, the participants vote. Whoever wins the governorship has basically secured all the marbles.
It would be one thing if these kids seemed to have any real political interests, policy goals, or plans, but the majority of them don’t. Or at least, they don’t seem to have ideas that exist outside of YouTube or Fox News radicalization; it is practically impossible to discern sincerity from most of them, given how gleefully caught up they are in the shallow gamification of politics. I don’t want to say teenagers can’t be politically involved because that can veer hard into condescension, and because I was in high school when Sept. 11, 2001, happened, and I walked out of class numerous times to march against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I see now what teenagers are doing with the March For Our Lives and mobilizing as members of what is often the progressive arm of the Democratic Party. In fact, the closest thing Boys State has to heroes are kids of color who are actually doing the work. Steven Garza, who the doc’s publicity materials describe as a “a progressive-minded child of Mexican immigrants who stands by his convictions amidst the sea of red,” talks about being inspired by Bernie Sanders and shaped by his mother’s onetime undocumented status. We see him doing door-knocking for the Democratic Party, thanking people for their time and exuding patience and curiosity with his remarks. There’s also René Otero, who moved from Chicago to Texas, talks about his grandmother’s advice of “faith, hope, and a bit of a pissed-off attitude,” and who has worked with Harvard University on a case study about the process of reintegrating convicts back into society. René, like Steven, has policy passions and is putting himself out there to get things done. And in Boys State, both the boys end up losers at the end of the week, because the white kids who will grow up to be the future of this country stop at nothing to win—and scare the absolute shit out of me.
What I kept thinking while watching Boys State was: What experiences have these kids really had that have made them so vehemently anti-abortion? That have made them so certain Democrats are coming for their guns? That make them willing to smear kids like Steven and René, who actually seem interested in making the world a better place? René is voted chairman of the Nationalist party, and dares to try and control his rowdy party, who try to insert (dumb) positions into their party platform, like a desire to secede. When René refuses to honor the secession idea, an Instagram account calling for his impeachment pops up overnight. More than 100 kids follow it, and it’s updated constantly with increasingly racist memes against René. At practically every party meeting, when René asks for party business, one of these loudmouth kids gets up and tries to impeach him. René gives a shit, and the other kids IN HIS PARTY make his life a living hell for it. Their rejection of René in turn encourages the opposing party to go after René too, and and as the race toward the governorship speeds up, a clear rivalry develops between Steven and René on one side and the ringleader against them, Ben Feinstein, on the other.
Feinstein, who proudly proclaims Ronald Reagan and Shapiro as his heroes, denies any racist motivations against his political rivals. His whole thing is that he as an amputee, who lost his legs at age 3 to meningitis and who has had numerous surgeries on one of his arms since then, believes “the more we keep focusing on these other factors, like race or gender or disability, the less we pin it to individual failings. And I think that’s very, very bad for this nation.” But Ben, who claims to consider people outside of their identity politics, has no problem engaging in clearly coded language when attacking Steven and René, when accusing them of bias, when ranting and raving about how with people like Steven and René in power, America would lose its guns. He laughs at the idea of America being a white supremacy, which is very much what a child whose parents encourage his exclusionary thinking would do. (His mother, listening to him pop off about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, gushes that he’ll one day be president.) He thrives on “USA, USA!” chants. He talks openly about not caring about policy positions and only wanting to win, and you’ll realize the utter vapidity of Feinstein in one single scene. On the first night at Boys State, as Ben struggles to connect with the other kids, he scoffs at another boy who says of his belief system, “I stand for freedom.” While sneering, Ben replies, “You stand for freedom? That’s a bold policy.” The next day, Ben has swiped the idea he previously mocked. He starts using the slogan “Feinstein for freedom,” riding it all the way to the Federalists’ party chairman position—and eventually, all the way to winning the governorship for his party after he insults and undermines Steven and René, helps supports the Instagram account in favor of impeaching René, and oversees the creation of a variety of memes mocking Steven for taking part in the March For Our Lives. As a personal choice, I try not to hate children, but Ben really tested me. It’s like the kid watched Vice and took it as life advice.
There are other worrying things throughout Boys State, but Ben exemplifies most of them in his all-consuming desire for victory rather than achievement. He doesn’t care what the party stands for, he just wants to—as he says numerous times—dominate, and he’ll do anything to get there. He knows the buzzwords—babies, guns, socialism, freedom—and he often compares what the boys are doing at Boys State to military warfare. He says, with no irony, that they’re going to “shock and awe” the other side into submission, and he’s savvy in realizing that the key to triumph is to attack others—making him unlike the documentary’s most Riggins-like figure, Robert. A Josh Hartnett from The Virgin Suicides type whom we see interviewed in his parents’ palatial home, Robert drives a gigantic custom-detailed pickup truck. He’s only applying to West Point for college, because it’s a family legacy. He slaps other Boys State attendees on the back and calls them “brother”; he’s the swiftest to obtain the 30 signatures needed to get on the party ballot for governor. At the podium, he yells against abortions and for guns, and you know it’s a script because he never deviates from the talking points—and you learn it’s actually a script when Robert admits that he’s pro-choice. “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart,” Robert says, and it might be the most honest he is in this whole thing. And when he loses the governor nominee position to Steven, even after attempting to double-cross him and purposefully mispronouncing his last name to underscore Steven’s Latino “otherness,” it seems like something switches on in Robert. Maybe something like shame, or possibly regret? He throws the full weight of his support behind Steven afterward, and he seems genuine when he says that he’s honored to have met him and become his friend. Everyone who meets Steven says that, and yet Steven still loses. Being the prepared candidate, the knowledgeable candidate, and the compassionate candidate—none of that is enough.
I’m really not trying to depress you, but Boys State depressed the hell out of me! This is what we talk about when we say film criticism is subjective, because Dustin’s takeaway from this documentary was a sort of kinship with kids like Steven and René, and an insistence that things can get better for blue kids stuck in red states. I’m on the opposite side of that: I think about how those kids in red states aren’t happy just being there, and how they want to come for us all. “It’s politics,” Ben says as a way of excusing everything he does in Boys State in order to win, and this is why I can’t join people in their excitement at seeing polls tip in Joe Biden’s favor, or at the possibility of Kamala Harris handing Mike Pence his ass in a debate. We’ve gone down this road before. Does any of that stuff really matter in the long run, when red-state brainwashing like this is so strong, and when this base is so immovable? If I took a drink every time one of these kids screamed against abortions, “liberal snowflakes,” universal background checks for gun purchases, and known socialist Muslim president Barack Hussein Obama, I would have gotten alcohol poisoning within only a few minutes of the running time of Boys State. I’m not saying any of us should stop fighting now that I’ve seen this absolutely infuriating glimpse into the loud-mouthed unscrupulousness of the other side—but I am saying I’m not sure this fight will ever get any easier. The kids aren’t all alright, and some of them, in fact, are real assholes.
Boys State is available in certain theaters and is streaming on Apple TV+ as of August 14, 2020. You can read Dustin’s review here.
Image sources (in order of posting): Apple TV+, Apple TV+, Apple TV+, Apple TV+ Apple TV+