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Review: Come to ‘Boys State’ for Austin scenery, stay for social horror

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Steven Garza is one of the four main subjects in documentary "Boys State."

Editor's note: This review was originally published on Aug. 12, 2020.

Watching “Boys State,” it didn’t take me long to think, “Boys are a mistake.”

I can say this, as I was once a teenage boy. I am intimately familiar with the genre.

Amanda McBaine’s and Jesse Moss’ documentary, filmed mostly in Austin, was supposed to screen at South by Southwest this year, before the festival’s cancellation. On Friday, it comes to Apple TV+ as an A24 release, airing out a cultural corner that’s distinctly Texan — and distinctly American, which should cause concern.

First, a little background on the world of “Boys State.” Since 1935, the American Legion has gathered up young men at summits across the country for an educational exercise, the kind history has taught us is perfect for hormone-charged, unbaked minds: forming a government and electing people to run it.

The Boys State program is meant as an exercise in civic leadership and patriotism. Indeed, the legion’s website tells us that the first such program was started to counter “socialism-inspired” alternatives. The alumni of the program are a who’s who of notables across the political spectrum: Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh, Cory Booker. The opening of the documentary assures us that there’s a Girls State, too. Rarely has a documentary so badly needed a sequel.

Boys State has been around in Texas since the 1940s. As the documentary details in lean-toward-the-screen detail, these high-schoolers do it all: divide into two parties, pick party chairmen, hammer out platforms, pass laws and run for offices that go all the way up to governor. Some take the whole thing very seriously and seem to come ready with playbooks. Others advocate for laws that ban cargo shorts. In 2017, the Texas Boys State class voted to secede from the U.S.

See? It’s all very Texan.

So, here we find the young men of Texas in the “Boys State” documentary, which charts the program’s Austin summit over the course of a week in June 2018. McBaine and Moss choose to filter the experience mainly through four viewer proxies, representing the made-up Federalist and Nationalist parties vying for control of this nascent government.

There’s Ben, a young man from San Antonio who studies speeches for fun and speaks with intensity but without breaths. “Boys State” is not shy about its political frame, even while following young subjects. Ben, who has physical disabilities, decries the focus identity issues in public discourse, including race and gender. He proudly “backs the blue” and declares the War on Terror is not racist.

We meet the shrewd René, from Chicago, who already knows how to write policy and crack a withering rejoinder with equal flair. Reed-thin and with eyes that could follow you around a room, he says he’s never seen so many white people before. He thinks people really want bipartisanship at the end of the day, eliciting an “oh, honey” from at least one viewer now writing a review.

Then there’s Robert, swagger stacked tall in a pair of cowboy boots, with a splash of Leif Garrett up top. A former Senate page who attended St. Andrew’s Episcopal School here in Austin, he’s all about Bitcoin and guns; he’s West Point-bound; and he has a propensity to stand around shirtless. Most importantly for the purposes of this program, he’s a naturally charismatic rabble rouser, flashing a smile to earn votes and whipping up crowds sans substance.

If Robert is portrayed as the prototypical politician, then his rival Steven is the change you want to believe in. Quiet and watchful, the Houston kid stands out from the beginning of “Boys State,” wearing a Beto shirt as he boards a bus of kids calling Barack Obama a neo-socialist. Texas is a melting pot, Steven says, and he believes that we can talk to each other to overcome our differences. He believes in the virtue of public service. While Robert slaps skin to win loyalty, Steven campaigns for governor by asking his peers what they want out of a government.

(Now’s as good a time as any to mention that Steven and René are now students at the University of Texas.)

Spoiling the short-term political futures of Ben, René, Robert and Steven would be a disservice to the twisty tale of “Boys State,” which beats out any real-life campaign story for suspense. (Well, maybe except 2016.) There are moments of inspiration, sure. Steven, the son of an undocumented immigrant, radiates quiet dignity throughout, and occasionally succeeds in winning over the unwashed masses to the side of decency with compassion and reason. Robert, who conjures thoughts of huckster “Lonesome” Rhodes from Elia Kazan’s “A Face In the Crowd,” shows a little depth behind his propensity to lead with his incisors instead of his soul.

It’s all fun and games and charming Capitol rotunda shots until “Boys State” inevitably mutates into “Lord of the Flies” for the Fox News era. An election season, mock or not, is about both high hopes and crushing crashes back down to terra firma. See Eddy, centered late in “Boys State,” a populist gubernatorial candidate who proudly makes up his own facts, because he knows people will believe anything said with confidence. See the boys wage war through alt-right-style memes and racist dog whistles. See throngs of young men in matching shirts swarm the statehouse, sometimes parroting demagoguery about snowflakes and fake news. See, among those bright young faces of America’s future, passionate concerns about the “infringement” of masculinity, whatever that means. See an entire auditorium rallied into frenzy by a loud voice at a podium.

One’s relationship to “Boys State” will vary wildly. Your political leanings could give you a different read. Your personal affection for unrestrained teenage machismo, or lack thereof, will tint your vision. As René says in the movie: Experience shapes opinion.

But it’s an exciting, chilling thing that this documentary does, to decontextualize American power from all the traditional theater. Remove the Republican and Democrat names from America’s love affair with partisanship. Take away the conservative-liberal sliding scale from the moral litmus tests. And then, isolate our boys in the state we all know — where only men have been presidents, where fathers are de facto family leaders, where the male gaze is the default on the movie screen, where men are paid more than women for the same work, where boys will be boys.

What are you left with? And where have we left our boys?

It would be lazy to watch “Boys State” and look for political tilt. It’s really a horror movie.