You would be forgiven, given the current state of things, in thinking that the last thing you want to watch right now is an American political documentary. I was certainly resistant, as I’m rarely in the mood to want to be enraged, depressed or terrified for the future. And certainly, about ten minutes into new Apple TV documentary Boys State, I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it all the way through. Nevertheless, I persisted and I’m glad I did. Because, while there certainly is much to get upset about, I was also left with a feeling that could be akin to …. hope?
Boys State is a documentary about a kind of supersized version of the ‘debating society’ system, which, if film and TV is to be believed, is a common feature of American High Schools. When I was in Sixth Form, we had mock elections and when I was a teacher, I helped a team enter a public speaking competition, but I’m not sure how much debating and politics are a common feature of the UK state education system in general. Boys State focuses on Texas, where a thousand teenage boys are selected from all over the state by the American Legion to go to the state capitol to participate in a week long condensed version of an election. They are divided into two parties, called the Federalists and the Nationalists (alarm bells are already ringing), then have to elect positions within their own parties and then the representatives from the two parties try to win in the final election. Your first question might reasonably be: is there a Girls State? And the answer is yes and we would all like to see THAT documentary now.
Like any documentary of this nature, it quickly has to zone in on particular ‘characters’ who are going to stand out from the crowd and provide the required tension and entertainment needed to sustain audience interest. The boys are also fairly quickly divided along left and right wing lines, with the white conservatives being represented by Ben Feinstein and Robert McDougall (a slightly terrifying gun rights activist) and the more liberal POCs being Steven Garza, a Latinx boy, who is desperate to make his parents proud and Rene Otero, who is eloquent and outspoken, which results in a small faction of his party immediately attempting to impeach him. Talking of impeachment, the T-word is never mentioned by any of the boys, which must have required some canny editing.
Although the teens do have their own (in some cases, strongly held) beliefs, they are already shrewd enough to know that they must tow the party line, go along with majority opinions and be as centrist as possible. McDougall admits privately to being pro-choice, but publicly spouts pro-life statements. Gun rights is a hot topic, but the only degree of ‘reason’ they are allowed to publicly share is that background checks are necessary, to go further would be political suicide. The talking head segments, where the boys speak directly to camera, without the other boys surrounding them, are certainly the most revealing eg. Rene saying that “he’s never seen so many white people ever.”
The most hilarious part is that, for some reason, there is a talent contest, as if they’re at a beauty pageant and have to share their ‘special skills.’ Unfortunately this is only a short segment, but it would have been worth more time, for the levels of cringertainment. Social media is a huge part of the boys’ campaigns and we see glimpses of how instagram is wielded as a political weapon. Again, seeing more of this would have been good, as there is no denying the level of saturation and importance of social media in their lives.
As someone who taught at an all-boys school for ten years and has a fascination with Lord of the Flies style scenarios – what happens when large amounts of teenage boys are thrown together in a relatively confined space and have to form a society? – there was much to interest me here. The hierarchies, alignments, loyalties etc are fascinating to watch. With Boys State, it is frustrating to feel like we’re getting such an edited, condensed and piecemeal view of the event and people involved. The running time means we are only seeing a small part of the whole.
Given the extreme nature of American politics at the moment, I thought the name-calling and mud-slinging would be a lot worse, but again, we are perhaps being fed a sanitised and filtered viewpoint. That’s not to say that there aren’t some very concerning aspects, but there is also hope to be found in how articulate and knowledgable many of the boys are. Their engagement with politics is good, but as Otero says, seeing a more diverse range of students from all backgrounds getting this opportunity would fill me with more excitement for the future. This is certainly a microcosm of the almost-current state of the nation and already feels a little dated (having been filmed in 2018, considering everything that has happened since). It will be a fascinating document to look back on in five years, ten years and beyond…