We have to confess the very concept of the annual American Legion run Boys State Event filled our democratic hearts with horror. Ite been going on since 1935 and is a week-long exercise at teaching selected high school-students how to play politics and establish a state government.
Set in red-neck Texas, filmmakers Amanda McBaine and her husband Jesse Moss follow some 1000 precocious 16/17 year old boys who had impressed the elderly Legion Board to be invited for the course. The opening credits show that some previous attendees include not only Dick Cheney, but surprisingly Bill Clinton & Cory Booker.
On arrival for the Week all the students are split into two separate parties ; the Federalists and the Nationalists. They do not represent the main American parties but by the end of the week one does lean to the Left, and the other to the Right.
Now they must decide if they want to run for political office. All positions from state district chairs, state attorneys and treasurers are up for grabs, as is the prime spot of Governor. It is this latter race that becomes the main focus of this intriguing documentary that we are surprised to discover that we really got hooked into.
They are for the most part a boisterous opinionated crowd that mainly follow the entrenched conservative views of their parents on matters such as gun control and abortion. But amongst their ranks there are a few Texans who do not come from privileged white families and it is they who stand out as the future politicians and the stars of the film.
The quartet that the camera follows include the two immigrant Texans who both end up as gubernatorial candidates for their parties . Mexican Steven Garza is an articulate and passionate student who already has a history of grass roots politics. Every impassioned speech he gives wins him more voters and friends,
His rival for the Federalists is an Italian immigrant Eddy Proietti Conti who relies heavily on his Party Chairman. Ben Feinstein is a double amputee and a pushy political junkie not averse to playing a few dirty tricks. One of which against the black Nationalist chairman René Otero backfires when it is labelled as racist.
They are others like Rob McDougall who straddle between the old world and the new. Destined for West Point Military Academy and now running to be the Governor of the Nationalist Party, he lies to the electorate in the hopes of getting elected. He pretends to support ultra conservative views thinking this is what is wanted. He says afterwards to the camera “Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart” which really warms us to him.
Credit where it’s due both to the precocious well informed young men who very impressively made me rethink my own prejudices on both them and the whole week. And to the filmmakers who steered a central course through it all, and guaranteed by the end it really didn’t matter who won, but how they rallied everyone to them and their cause.
The one bitter note is not from us, but from Chairman Otero, who congratulated Feinstein his opposite number by saying ‘He’ll make a fabulous politician. ……. if that’s a good thing!
Boys State , winner of the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize is released by A24 Films and is screening on Apple TV