Rated PG-13. On Apple TV+
Grade: B plus
In 2018, documentary filmmakers Jesse Ross and Amanda McBain turned their cameras on an event that takes place annually all over the country, titled Boys State (and also Girls State). It is a American Legion-sponsored leadership program involving, in the case of the film, 1,000 male Texas high school students, who spend a week forming political parties known as the Federalists and Nationalists and putting up candidates for office. In Austin, Texas, where the film was largely shot, the offices include governor and lieutenant governor. These are smart and motivated young men.
One of them is Robert McDougall, a truck-driving Texan, who bought into Bitcoin early, has applied only to West Point for college and yearns to run for governor. Before that, he must get 30 signatures from fellow Nationalists to qualify. Tall, handsome and charismatic, he gets them. Steven Garza, a son of a once undocumented mother, who works at a gas station, has the same ambition. But he has a harder time getting his signatures. Previous “graduates” of Boys State include Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh. The group in Texas is, as you might expect, conservative. The issues that compel them most are abortion, gun rights and immigration. Rene Otero, an African American, is elected state chairman for the Nationalists. He finds himself the target of a perhaps racist instant impeachment campaign. Ben Feinstein, the chairman for the Federalists, is a “progressive” among conservatives. He is a double leg amputee with two prosthetic limbs. His determination to win the governorship for the Federalists presents him with a choice: use the divisive techniques of the Trump right-wing or face almost certain loss.
Garza, who idolizes Napoleon Bonaparte, is also a left of center candidate. But he is a brilliant speaker, and he says he is after compromise on all issues. McDougall chooses to hide his pro-choice sentiments in a bid to get nominated for governor by the Nationalists. In the final hours, Feinstein finds footage of Garza online, leading an anti-gun violence march. Garza counters by saying anti-gun violence is not an anti-gun position. There is something odd about these young men, giving speeches to all-male crowds about abortion. No one in the film says the words, “women’s rights.” In a moment of anger, Rene, perhaps justifiably, describes Boys State as “a conservative indoctrination camp.” Will Feinstein sell his soul to win?
Ross and McBain follow the young men around with cameras and recording equipment and capture the speeches, immediate reactions, private moments and political male-bonding.
“Boys State” is a microcosm of what will happen between now and Nov. 3. Cue Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” even if some people have no idea what the lyrics mean.
(“Boys State” contains profanity.)