If you have an Apple TV as I do you will no doubt have watched this boisterous flamboyant documentary, Boys State about the youth of Texas and how they look at politics.
Being an advocate for more political education in Australian schools, I eagerly awaited the contents of this 2018 documentary.
Every year 1,100 boys in all states (there is also a Girls State) apply for entry into a one-week programme where the state legislator is simulated and the boys have to take sides and duplicate all aspects of its procedures.
It is full of over-the-top American brashness, full-on testosterone, high school bands, drums and cross-party aggression. The week is sponsored by the American Legion with oversight and guidance.
The boys are embedded into two sides: Federalist and Nationalists – which turn out to be left and right.
The doco focuses on those seeking nomination for important positions in both parties. The two groups are expected to come up with a platform and at the conclusion a vote is taken for governor and other positions.
The viewer is presented with only a bare minimum of the concept’s history. However, we do find out that Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh and Bill Clinton attended.
The directors, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, don’t waste any time in introducing the main characters who are in their own way typical 17-year old’s full of their own innocence or self-righteousness and we are apt to adopt the ones we share our values with.
Ben Feinstein is a “politics junkie” and double amputee from San Antonio. He is a Ronald Reagan devotee and even has a doll in Reagan’s image. He announces his personal platform when he explains to his family that it’s bad for America to focus on “race or gender or disability” rather than “individual failings.”
Steven Garza, is Ben’s political opposite. A quiet lad of thoughtful disposition who enters soon after. Then we have Steven Striver an open admirer of Bernie Sanders and surprisingly Napoleon. He describes himself as a progressive and arrives at the conference in a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt.
At the beginning, both of the boys Ben and Steven don’t interact because they are in opposing parties. Ben with the federalists and Steven with the Nationalists. Ben attains the position of party chairman.
Steven finds himself with the two other main figures: Robert MacDougall, Austin Smiler and the sharp-witted, razor-tongued René Otero, a transplant recipient from Chicago.
The energy of the boys at times leaves one exhausted as they draw up their platforms, attend endless meetings and participate in various activities including a talent show.
With the aid of multiple cameras, the four major charismata’s journeys are tracked from beginning to end.
Despite all the emotional ups and downs of these, at times, less than mature young men the editor manages to keep the narrative tight and on point.
Each party selects its own representatives and spends time arguing its platform. Suggestions range from the ridiculous to the profound. “They won’t take our manhood away.”
Both parties adopt the right to carry arms. The right because it is indelibly etched into their foreheads, and the left do so in the knowledge that they cannot win without doing so.
The right is opposed to abortion and the left are pro-abortion.
Throughout the movie I couldn’t help but think that these boys (mainly on the right) hadn’t caught up with the fact that there are those in their country who are still striving for equality.
Indeed, some of the lads seemed like they had swallowed a narcissism pill every morning.
I wondered what the Texas Bluebonnet Girls State might think of these guys and some of their views.
More information about the movie tells us that the Legion has:
“… sponsored a program for teenagers” since 1935 and that there “are separate programs for boys and girls.” The history is complicated, and instructive. The Legion sponsors Boys State, which the organization created “to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps,” as its website puts it. Girls State was first presented in 1937 and is run by the formerly all-female American Legion Auxiliary, a support organization. The girls’ program isn’t as prominent as the boys’, as the filmmakers’ indifference to it suggests.”
As enjoyable as the movie is, and I plan to watch it again, I was left with the thought that without the participation of both sexes it is incomplete.
The boys themselves range from the smart-arsed American to the charming, from the gifted to the Trump-like junior buffoons but mostly they’re kids seeking political maturity.
The latter part of the movie centres on the boys seeking election as governor or the important role of Party Chairman. Robert MacDougal is a candidate who stands against the Mexican lad, Garza. He is so impressed with his opponent’s ability to convey his message that he considers standing aside for him but his campaign is already under way.
Having read the room to be conservative on “pro choice abortion” he lies about his own ideology having drawn the conclusion that:
“Sometimes you can’t win on what you believe in your heart,” he looks into the camera. “It’s a morally questionable thing to lie in politics.” He then imparts the lesson he’s learned. “It gave me a new appreciation for why politicians lie to get in office.”
For those on the left watching this political melodrama play out, it is Garza, the son of Mexican immigrants and the sharp witted and very knowledgeable African-American Otero who steal the show.
It comes as no surprise when racist propaganda is used against both boys and it also comes as no surprise that neither boy takes the bite. Otero really does have an extraordinary grasp of the machinations of state politics and uses it with great effect.
Garza has a unique willingness to listen to those who disagree with him. Together with strong personal morals (other than gun control) of all the boys he is the one that leaves you with a very lasting impression.
Of course, in politics there is always a winner and a loser. I cannot disclose who becomes the junior state governor because it would spoil the movie for you.
Something similar to Boys State is desperately needed in Australia.
My test for any movie is the length of time it stays with you and this one is yet to exit my head: 4/5
My thought for the day
Character is a combination of traits that etch the outlines of a life, governing moral choices and infusing personal and professional conduct. It’s an elusive thing, easily cloaked or submerged by the theatrics of politics. But unexpected moments can sometimes reveal the fibres from which it is woven.
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