FILM REVIEW – BOYS STATE. Directed by Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss. Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor. 109 minutes. On Apple TV+.
In the opening moments of BOYS STATE, we learn that this is a program run by the American Legion for many years in which high school seniors spend a week setting up a model government as a way to learn how the system works. (There’s a separate program for teenage girls, and it would be interesting if there was a companion documentary.) We see that a number of prominent people in public life are alumni of the program including former President Bill Clinton, former V.P. Dick Cheney, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, and conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh.
Then we dive into the 2018 program in Texas and are told a thousand boys were selected to participate. They are randomly assigned to one of two parties––the Nationalists and the Federalists––and then have to get to work. Some will draft party platforms, others will attempt to legislate, and a few will run for office, with the election of “governor” being the climax of the week.
We follow a handful of the boys, focusing on the ones who become “party chairmen” and the ones vying for the governorship. What we see is revealing. It would not be fair to report the outcome here, as the suspense over the election is what drives the dramatic narrative. What’s surprising is how seriously some of these would-be future politicians take the opportunity.
Not all do. There are proposals for Texas to secede or to prepare for an extraterrestrial invasion, but for the most part, they try to address real issues, with one suggesting that if they can find common ground they could serve as an example for stalemated adult politicians. Yet the lessons they learn seem to go in the other direction.
Texas is a conservative state––although this November may test that theory––and so those with liberal views keep quiet about them. One, who proudly demands that abortion be banned even in the cases of rape so that the infants could be put up for adoption, admits in an interview with the filmmakers that he’s actually pro-choice, but feels he has to give the people what they want. Another, who becomes one of the finalists for governor, takes a different tack, boldly declaring while he’s “pro-gun” there’s no reason they can’t support universal background checks given that it has wide support. There’s an attempt to depose one of the party chairmen, and the final race turns on personal issues, with one of the boys defending his playing hardball. These political junkies have learned from their elders all too well.
The filmmakers let the story play out and then give us a coda in which we learn what happened to the four boys who have been their prime focus. Viewers of “Boys State” should pay close attention, because in another six years these kids will be eligible to run for Congress and it’s not at all unlikely that at least one of them will succeed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.