SUNDANCE LONDON REVIEW: Adolescence and Electioneering Collide in ‘Boys State’ (2020)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Boys State is a vital picture of where we are now. It’s too good – and too important – to ignore”

A documentary journey into the psychology of the American teenager, Boys State lifts the curtain on one of American’s most interesting political experiments and reveals a story which has somehow remained untold until now. Whether you’re mourning the state of modern politics, or hopeful about a new wave of young guns arriving on the scene, you’ll find something inspiring and frightening here. The deserving winner of the Grand Jury Prize in this year’s Sundance documentary competition, Boys State is a vital picture of where we are now. It’s too good – and too important – to ignore. 

Since 1935, the American Legion has run a week-long course in each US state designed to teach academically gifted American boys, on the edge of their high school graduations, the principles of political engagement. Like a summer camp and the Model UN rolled into one, Boys State gives 1,000 boys the chance to create their own policy platforms, culminating in a mock election at the end of the week. The opportunity to add a trophy to their college applications – and even to win a special scholarship – means that the stakes are high for these kids. Boys State alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Cory Booker – but names like Neil Armstrong and Bruce Springsteen, omitted here, are just as impressive. Boys State focuses on the 2018 event in Texas. 

After peeking into selection interviews, in which applicants give well-rehearsed answers to questions about their influences and aspirations, directors Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine latch on to a few of the teens to guide us through the narrative. While the boys are equally ambitious, their politics are far from homogenous. We first meet Ben from San Antonio as he replays President Reagan speeches on his computer, watched over by a talking Ronnie action figure. Ben’s a bootstrap conservative: a bilateral amputee, he chooses not to be defined by his disability, and equally prefers to consider himself “American” rather than white. Nobody in his household points out that not every American has that luxury. 

We then meet softly-spoken Steven, a Bernie and Beto fan and the son of Mexican immigrants, as he tries to make friends on the coach trip to the campus. Moss and McBaine often capture Steven on the edge of gatherings, trying to get in: he’s passionate but hasn’t mastered the art of glad-handing, or expressing his convictions face-to-face. By contrast, Robert is affable, ambitious, and the kind of teen who challenges his peers to push-up contests. 

On arrival, the kids are all suited in white tees and red lanyards, and assigned a party: Federalist or Nationalist, blank slates onto which their members can etch a policy platform. They immediately set to electioneering, trying to win a prestigious position within a mock government which elects from both parties. It’s dispiriting, inspiring, and stress-inducing to watch these kids try to gather a following as quickly as possible. Some opt for earnest pitches of their own personal politics, while some go for empty and violent rhetoric straight out of the Trump playbook. Renè, one of the other key subjects of the film, is pragmatic: he knows that declaring his views on a signature issue, prison reform, and going bipartisan elsewhere is the right choice. He wins election as state party chairman of the Nationalists. 

What makes Boys State a thrilling watch is the filmmakers’ access to this world, and what they choose to omit. Moss and McBaine’s cameras get close enough to capture the forehead sweat on these kids, and capture their unfiltered, unguarded thoughts. Meanwhile, adults are absent from the film – rarely pictured. The film recalls a more polite Lord of the Flies. Like that story of boys forming their own hierarchies, often viciously, adults are invoked sparingly: and always to prompt us to ask just how ready these kids are to create the future. At the legislature, a series of joke proposals for new bills – starting an alien defence initiative, or relocating all Prius drivers to Oklahoma – suggest that the rigid, po-faced environment is already starting to get tiresome for some of the participants. 

On the campaign trail, the way that one week at this camp captures all of the hallmarks of a long-form election campaign is thrilling, and almost unbelievable. Candidates like Robert flounder when they can’t match their rhetoric with substance. Steven, meanwhile, excels on the soapbox, and delivers a barnstorming speech that immediately marks him out as a contender. It’s one of the film’s most stirring moments. While it seems like progressive values are going to win the day, it’s short-lived: Renè’s efforts are rewarded with an impeachment movement, and racist attacks on social media, while Steven’s gun control leanings are used as ammunition in a meme-led smear campaign. It’s clear that these teens, despite being TikTok-savvy and more diverse, aren’t too different from the senators that they’re angling to one day replace. Yet there are glimmers of hope, too. Boys State even has its own TV channel covering the race, a media platform that’s tougher than some mainstream outlets.

Amid all the testosterone, a look at the companion Girls State – also operated by the American Legion – would have been interesting. Moss and McBaine are clearly trying to capture a portrait of contemporary masculinity at a pivotal moment in history, but it would have been fascinating to see how both camps conducted themselves over the week. Viewers might also crave some kind of suggestion as to why the divided politics of Washington are duplicated so precisely in this petri dish. For better or worse, we’re left to answer that question ourselves.

Late adolescence is a strange time for anyone, as chronicled by films from John Hughes to Céline Sciamma, but especially for bright and ambitious kids like those chronicled by Boys State. They know that they need to achieve something, but not how – or sometimes even why. The film’s triumph is conveying the anxiety and uncertainty of this time of personal development, while at the same time honestly depicting a microcosm of today’s stratified political climate. Boys State is an essential watch, and the triumphant highlight of the Sundance London season.

Dir: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine

Prod: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine

Available: A24 and Apple TV

Header image courtesy of Sundance London