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‘Boys State’ Review

You’re never wrong, the other side just cheats.
August 14, 2020
Featured Image
(Screenshot / A24)

Spoiler Warning: I talk about the end of Boys State in this review. So, you know, if you’re really committed to not knowing the end of this documentary that’s going to be streaming on AppleTV+ starting this weekend, please stop reading before the banner ad in the middle of this review.

Full, dorky disclosure: I went to Boys State.

That said, the Boys State seen in Boys State—a documentary about Texas’s iteration of the American Legion-sponsored civics camp populated by strivers and junior politicos and true believers just trying to influence the government they create—bears no relation to my experience of Boys State. My biggest memory of Boys State wasn’t politicking or horse trading or speech-prepping. No, it was annoyance that the host campus, Liberty University, didn’t have playing cards in the gift shop. (Tools of the devil or some such.) Making the guys down the hall who had a deck of cards and played Spades until all hours of the night kings, the Kings of Boys State.

Like the wicked King George before them, however, these sovereigns were false gods. Boys State does not stand for kings; they elect governors, visions of democracy who represent the will of the people and strive to enact those voters’ aims and desires.

It is sublimely absurd.

Imagine, if you will, groups of children between the age of 16 and 18 arbitrarily divided into political parties—the “Federalists” and the “Nationalists,” which is a brain-melting conundrum all of its own—and then asking them to choose a party platform with some relevance to the issues of the day. Or don’t imagine it, watch this documentary and gain keen, invaluable insights into the fights over abortion and guns and immigration that have roiled our democracy for the last 40 years. The children will save us.

Our primary subjects are: Ben, who lost his legs to a bout of meningitis years before and winds up as the chief strategist of the Federalist party; Robert, a charismatic figure who runs for governor in the Nationalist party’s primary and loses; Steven, the Beto-esque idealist (he literally wears a Beto shirt as he boards the bus to Boys State) who defeats Robert and runs for governor under the Nationalist party’s banner; and Rene, whose speaking prowess earns him the chairmanship of the Nationalist party.

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss have constructed Boys State in a way that suggests a dichotomy of Passionate Pols and Weak-Kneed Triangulators. Robert’s charisma is undermined by his willingness to argue against his own beliefs because he thinks that’s what the people want to hear; Steven, meanwhile, struggles to obtain the 30 signatures needed to get on the ballot but blows people away with his impassioned campaign speech against . . . secession. (Remember: This is a very serious undertaking tackling the most important issues of our day.)

Interestingly, Boys State spends very little time with the Federalist party’s nominee, Eddy, treating him as an empty suit and instead choosing to focus on Ben’s machinations. At one point, Ben rallies his base by accusing Rene of bias for using parliamentary tricks to shut down Eddy’s efforts to host a Q&A session during a campaign stop. As Ben later explains, these people are conservatives, and shallow, baseless accusations of bias really play well with them. Ben wages viral meme warfare on Instagram and unleashes an unrelenting smear campaign suggesting that Steven’s work as an anti-gun advocate means he is, in fact, opposed to gun ownership.

Spoiler—

— Eddy ends up defeating Steven.

It’s odd that so little attention is paid to Eddy, given the contours of his own story: The child of Italian immigrants, Eddy’s journey to Boy’s State echoes that of first-generation American Steven. But focusing on Eddy’s story rather than Ben’s string-pulling would be a distraction. When paired with the opening vignette, in which a Boys State counselor reads the passage from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death about why we should fear Brave New World more than Nineteen Eighty-Four, the message of the movie is obvious. It’s not that Steven’s ideas were bad or unpopular—just as it wasn’t that Beto’s ideas were bad or unpopular; just as it wasn’t that Hillary ran a shoddy campaign—but that the people were overwhelmed with irrelevance.

This is a comforting fiction for progressives who cannot understand why they keep losing, a pleasant way to come to terms with defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. It is no wonder that Boys State was such a hit with critics and studio figures alike when it debuted at Sundance in January of this year: People like to be comforted.

It’s easy to dismiss defeat as the product of some unfair trick: outside interference, say, or a new method of voting. It’s harder to grapple with the notion that the ideas themselves are bad or unpopular, or that they’re being delivered by a flawed messenger who alienates people otherwise open to the messages he’s peddling. Boys State is compelling enough in its absurdity, as many documentaries about inherently absurd setups often are. But it’s an obscuring fiction, at best, for those trying to figure out where we go from here.

Correction: I’d originally named the winner “Patrick” instead of Eddy due to a note-taking mistake. Apologies.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association