It’s not clear to me if this is a heartwarming study in young people’s idealism or a Lord of the Flies bloodbath with smug feral demons in white T-shirts. It’s not clear if it’s funny or tragic, if it’s reality TV or reality itself. But Boys State is as exciting and moving as Steve James’s high school basketball epic Hoop Dreams was a generation ago, with its emotional rawness, its guileless patriotism and capacity for hurt and wonder. We watch, in what feels like real time, as a group of ambitious teenage boys – smart, poignantly naive, utterly insufferable – get brutally acquainted with Kipling’s two “impostors”: triumph and disaster.
It is the story of Boys State, a kind of annual debate club in the US for 16 and 17-year-olds organised by the American Legion, state by state, a project invented in 1937 – and there is, to put it delicately, a bit of a 1930s vibe about it. But it’s avowedly there to inculcate citizenship and leadership among America’s youth and reintroduce the values of reasoned argument to a generation addled by the social-media screaming match. Some of America’s biggest political legends took part in their youth, and the film shows the famous photo of a teenaged Bill Clinton shaking hands with JFK at his event. There are separate groups for girls and boys. Boys State is a little like the model UN, without the wussy liberal nonsense of pretending to be foreigners. The young people spend a week at the state capitol, run for pretend office, conduct boisterous debates and finally submit to a nerve-shredding election.
In 2017, the Texas Boys State voted to secede from the union, causing national soul-searching, much like the Oxford Union’s King and Country debate in Britain in 1933. It was febrile and immature of the Texas boys, maybe, but then so is grownup American politics these days. The following year, documentary film-makers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss spent time with the Texan debaters, as they once again built America from the ground up in their own beardless image. Had the previous year’s mercurial, quasi-Trumpian mood receded into embarrassment or hardened further still? Is it more than a child’s educational game? By the end of this movie, with its shattering climax, it feels like the most important thing in the world.
For Texas Boys State, the participants are asked to join and then decide on candidates and chairmen of the arbitrarily formed parties “Nationalists” and “Federalists”, followed by the overall vote – a convention that reinforces the sense among some of the teen cynics present that US politics is just a game. We see on someone’s phone the inevitable Matrix red pill meme about the corporations running things anyway. But it soon becomes horribly clear that the two parties are divided on left/right lines, and God help anyone who doesn’t love guns.
For the Nationalists, the candidate is a Mexican American boy, Steven Garza, with a talent for sincere rhetoric, but whose gun-control views are held against him. His chair, René Otero, is an elegant African American boy originally from Chicago who says he has never seen so many white people before, and who wears half-moon glasses that make him look 40 years older than he is. For the Federalists, the chair, Ben Feinstein, is a gung-ho conservative who is a double amputee and wants to join the CIA; his candidate, Eddy Proietti Conti, is a young man who is described as a Ben Shapiro figure.
Soon, the dirty tricks kick off. There is an attempt among some Nationalists to impeach their own chair (for conscious or unconscious reasons that we can only guess at) and the Federalists’ Instagram page mocks this internal row and fanatically attacks their opponent’s membership of the anti-school-shooting Never Again MSD movement. The Nationalists’ chair attempts to limit the Federalists’ debate time on technical grounds; the cry of “rigged” goes up and the acrimony boils over. The gloves and the training wheels come off.
The tension is unbearable. And so is the great imponderable question: is the soul-crushing disappointment of defeat the rocket-fuel for future victory – like Nietzsche’s maxim about strength through not being destroyed, or One Direction conquering the world after coming third in The X Factor? Some of these boys are already as hard-faced and cynical as velociraptors. Some are gentle and sweet natured. Some are even shown changing their minds. It’s an amazing spectacle.
• Boys State is on Apple TV+ from 14 August.
Source: The Guardian