Mon. Sep 28th, 2020

Film Review: In ‘Boys State,’ American Exceptionalism Wins

Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s documentary Boys State begins by juxtaposing two ideologically opposite campers at the Texas outpost of the American Legion’s Boys State gathering. We first meet Steven Garza, a soft-spoken idealist with a far-reaching view of civility who’s not afraid to shake hands (remember that?) with campers across the aisle. Then there’s Robert, who cashed out his Bitcoin earnings for new cowboy boots and spouts Texas conservative talking points so absentmindedly—pro-gun, pro-life, pro-states’ rights—he almost seems like a caricature. As I watched him fumble over his campaign speech and begin to question his carefree teenage confidence, I wondered for a moment if the purpose of Boys State—a film that captures the emotional journey of its subjects so intimately, with both the distance of an observer and the careful guidance of a nebulous adult in charge—was to mock the boys. What was there to be gained from sitting in a theater of left-center liberals chuckling at a seventeen-year-old’s understanding of economic policies and social sanctions? (It was the last film I saw in an actual theater, two days before New York shut down) Wasn’t the film’s intention supposed to be for the boys and their audience, however they may disagree, to join hands in the face of political polarization? 

But the twist to Boys State, which won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance before briefly playing the New Directors/New Films Festival this spring, comes when Robert delivers a pièce de résistance that shows an insight into pubescent populism wiser than some I’ve noted from real politicians this year. In a talking head, Robert confesses that his earlier shriek from the stage that he is staunchly pro-life as he vied for his party’s nomination for Texas chapter governor was but a ruse. Robert’s pro-choice, but he knew that he’d need to rouse his constituents with an appeal to their values, or at least to their preferred buzzwords. It’s then that I saw that Boys State isn’t just a film about seeing the good in your enemy, or overcoming differences in the name of centrist political goals, even if the film ends on a palatable note about bipartisanship. This is a film about manipulation, and it’s one worth watching more than once on Apple TV+ to see just how McBaine and Moss manipulate the narrative of their teenage subjects’ beliefs, strategies, and goals.

Run by the American Legion, a veteran’s organization whose mission “to foster and perpetuate a one hundred percent Americanism” often includes congressional lobbying, Boys State is an annual state-by-state gathering of pre-screened high school juniors who elect among themselves a variety of mock officials, from county clerk to governor. Simply put, it’s a supercharged sex-segregated summer camp. The documentary points out that many politicians and pundits, from Dick Cheney to Rush Limbaugh, attended Boys State in their youth, but the program also counts everyone from Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen to James Gandolfini and Roger Ebert as alumni. It’s a reminder that political ambition is often fast-tracked through adolescence—not just among the sons and daughters of elected officials, but also the kids who filled their days with debate team, mock trial, scouts, and essay writing competitions. Some campers featured in the film dared to affiliate themselves with politicized causes—the American Legion is officially non-partisan and divides the campers into “Nationalists” and “Federalists,” not Republicans and Democrats—and paid the consequences when other campers scoured their Instagrams. Steven, for example, helped organize a March for Our Lives anti-gun violence event in Houston, which Ben, a quick-thinking party chairman who lost his legs to meningitis as a toddler, gleefully exploits. 

But the anticipated battle between opposing gun control factions doesn’t quite play out the way you think it might. Some campers are hesitant when they hear that Steven is “anti-gun,” but he assures the crowds in various speeches that he is pro-Second Amendment; he only wants to increase background checks and limit access to high-powered assault rifles in the hopes of curbing mass shootings. He confesses that a shooting at a school near his own motivated him to join a local March for Our Lives group, but that the organization’s Florida founders don’t represent him. The response from the nearly 1,600 teenage boys—who have promised in rallies that “our masculinity will not be infringed” if elected, and referred to moderate and left-leaning campers as “Clinton-loving liberal snowflakes”—is remarkably understanding. I’m not sure if this means the next generation is better at coming to the table than the current adults in charge, or if the trauma of school shootings just has no political boundaries.

What Boys State shows so acutely is how the language of American exceptionalism affects not just our differing political views, but the way we internalize them. As Steven struggles to win back the votes of his pro-gun constituents, he tells a story of how his mother, an undocumented immigrant, worked hard to build a better life in America, and how guns in the wrong hands can threaten her American dream. Ben says that despite his prosthetic legs, he doesn’t “identify” as disabled, and that the belief that you’re marginalized does more harm to people than systemic marginalization itself. It is this steadfast belief in the myth of meritocracy—the idea that we get where we are in life purely from our own efforts, with no outside factors helping or hurting us—that propels the budding politicians of Boys State forward in the face of adversity. Campers from both parties rely on the narrative of the American dream to push their agendas and connect in the midst of a convention that often caves to the chaos of gathering 1,600 high school boys in a room. It’s a good reminder that when you think you’re being hoodwinked by a smooth-talking politician preaching about the unique and disparate opportunities of our country, you’re probably right: Nothing draws someone in quite like the idea that they’re special. 

Boys State will be at select theaters/drive-ins and streaming globally on Apple TV+ August 14.

%d bloggers like this: