Courtesy of A24

October 22, 2020

Documentary ‘Boys State’ Captures Coming-of-Age in the Political Landscape

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One week. Two political parties. 1,100 boys. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s documentary Boys State (an Apple Original Films and A24 release; now streaming on Apple TV+) tells the story of four boys learning to distinguish themselves as individual entities in a cut-throat political environment. Its glimpse at the next generation of politicians inspires hope in our climate plagued with political tension.

Each year, high school juniors are selected to assemble their own state government in a week-long program hosted by The American Legion that shares the same name as the documentary. Participants are divided into Federalists and Nationalists, randomly assigned to a party and tasked with establishing their party’s platforms. They also pass legislation and hold elections, with the gubernatorial election being the pinnacle of the program.

Six camera crews documented four boys uber-enthralled with winning coveted elections, specifically for governor or party chairman, at Texas Boys State in June 2018. But the differences in their backgrounds and political ideology compared to other participants rang challenging. Robert MacDougall with his blunt demeanor, muscular physique and predominantly conservative politics appears like an archetypal participant destined to be governor, but is met with ethical questions about appealing to the other participants or maintaining his values. Steven Garza is the underdog advocate that dreams are made of. With his unwavering support for immigrants, the LGTBQ community and veterans, he amalgamates humanity and policy into an unforgettable gubernatorial campaign. René Otero is a Chicago native and Texas transplant with an unequivocal ability to project and an extensive knowledge of combating injustice that doesn’t make him quiver in the face of impeachment. Ben Feinstein adores former President Ronald Reagan — to the extent where he has an action figure of him and studies his speeches — and is a double amputee that spews his political brilliance on anyone within earshot.

Despite the central focus on these four boys, their narratives rarely intertwined due to the sheer magnitude of participants and their opposing party affiliations. Their individual narratives instead patched together critical events throughout the week. The other factor that created cohesion throughout the documentary was the boys contemplating whether they could successfully run campaigns and execute their positions without sacrificing their values.

MacDougall embodied this contemplation during his gubernatorial campaign when he appeared to be an outspoken supporter of typically conservative values, like being pro-life. In one of the most pivotal moments throughout the documentary, he spoke vulnerably about actually being pro-choice and his newfound respect for politicians after his stint trying to appeal to his perception of other participants. Fellow Nationalist gubernatorial candidate Garza broke all barriers of a traditional Boys State participant. His resistance to conform to the political ideology prominent amongst other participants carried his campaign until its final moments when he lost to his Federalist opponent. In the process, he garnered support for participants across the political spectrum and illuminated a path for other progressives to dominate all expectations set for participants who neglect the traditional mold.

Outside of the gubernatorial election, Otero was the Nationalist and Feinstein was the Federalist party chairmen. Otero was met with heavy criticism despite his advocacy success in the professional sphere. While members of his party called for his impeachment and he faced racist remarks on social media, his composed demeanor and continuous support for policies like universal background checks kept his position and political ideology intact. And the obsession of Feinstein to solidify his party’s success left no task neglected. Like the Renaissance man of the party, he continuously transitioned between speechwriting, deciding what meme pages about the election to endorse and providing the utmost support for his party’s gubernatorial candidate.

As the dimensions of these four boys expanded and exposed a more precise understanding of how they individually contribute to the collective narrative of democracy, it brought home the idea that humanity is detrimental to politics. Without the steadfast belief in their values and utmost desire to represent the needs of the people as the foundation for their political aspirations, these four boys wouldn’t have developed newfound approaches to navigating the political landscape like they did at Boys State. This documentary in its 109 minutes-entirety bestows a look at how burgeoning minds are laying the groundwork for democracy under a new generation of politicians.

Watch Boys State now streaming on Apple TV+ and remember to vote on Nov. 3.

 

Ashley Ramynke is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at aer285@cornell.edu.