You can’t go to the Sundance Film Festival without seeing a political celebrity: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Knock Down the House) in 2019, and Hillary Clinton (Hillary) this year. But while Clinton’s comments about Bernie Sanders made headlines before her Hulu series even screened in Utah, by the time the 2020 festival was over last weekend, the Sundance buzz belonged to four Texas teenagers who might end up as future members of the Texas Legislature—or perhaps become another Brad Parscale.
Those four Texans are the stars of Boys State, the winner of the festival’s Grand Jury Prize for best documentary that’s also screening at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine (2015’s The Overnighters), Boys State tells the story of the American Legion program of the same name, in which 1,100 high school students gather at the Texas Capitol to build a government from scratch. Randomly assigned to two nonideological parties (the Federalists and the Nationalists), they work together to create local and statewide infrastructure, develop and approve policy platforms, and hold elections, with a whirlwind week of signature-gathering and campaigns, for everything from the State Board of Education to governor. Part reality show, part civics lesson, and part coming-of-age story, the film also set a Sundance record for biggest documentary acquisition, with Apple and A24 (Moonlight) cutting a reported $12 million check for the distribution rights.
The Boys State program, which began in 1935, exists in all fifty states, and counts Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, and Bill Clinton among its alumni (they are all featured in the film’s opening credits). There’s also an equivalent Girls State. But it was Boys State Texas that caught the filmmakers’ attention, having made national headlines in 2017, when its “legislature” voted to secede from the United States. Moss and McBaine thought that through the mouths of not-children, but not-quite-yet-adults, they could tell a different—but still representative—story about the United States and United States politics.
“This was after the very divisive election of 2016, feeling like the country was increasingly polarized, and people were not talking to each other,” Moss says. “Was our country being ripped apart? Can people talk to each other who have different politics?
“What we liked about the program is that it brought kids together from across Texas who have very different backgrounds: politically, socioeconomically, racially, and gives them a forum to meet each other face-to-face and to build a government,” he continues. “I thought, What could this story and this program tell us about our future as a country? Are we going to split apart? Are we going to figure it out? Are we going to be Lord of the Flies? Or are we going to be our better angels?”
As with any good documentary it’s the characters who drive the drama. Boys State is a vérité documentary, its story unknown before the cameras rolled, but there was a “casting” process. Moss and McBaine conducted preliminary interviews with boys already accepted to the program. The directors were in search of “people that we were inspired by and we knew would do well in the world,” Moss says. “Who were ambitious, politically sophisticated, big-hearted. All the things you want also for film characters.”
The boys they found initially included Houston’s Steven Garza, who was born in Mission to a then-undocumented immigrant mother. When we first meet him, he’s wearing a Beto for Senate T-shirt and block-walking for congressional candidate Laura Moser. He notes that he’s on track to become the first member of his family to graduate from high school. There’s also Austin’s Robert MacDougal, a gregarious cross between Friday Night Lights’ Tim Riggins and Dazed and Confused’s Wooderson. Cool as he is, Robert seems to be a fairly conventional Texas conservative and aspires to attend West Point. And finally, there’s Ben Feinstein, from San Antonio, a Ronald Reagan-loving Jewish kid who has two prosthetic legs (he had meningitis as a child) and strongly believes in individualism and self-sufficiency. The fourth main character, a young African American man and Chicago transplant named Rene Otero, does not reveal himself to either viewers or the filmmakers until the program is underway, with a barn-burning speech during his campaign to become party chair.
The film was shot in just seven days—the length of the program—with Moss and McBaine supervising as many as seven crews, moving among the four main characters and two political “parties” at numerous meetings, rallies, and musical performances (there’s even a talent show, complete with the obligatory cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Like with any summer camp experience, there are wild highs and lows and friendships and rivalries—and very little sleep (for the kids as well as the adults filming them). “What you see, it’s just real,” McBaine told the audience at the premiere Sundance screening. “Intense. I was amazed that they were still all so articulate. They surprised us hourly.”
Not to mention, it was June in Texas. “Oh my gosh! It was hot,” McBaine says. “That is the only shortcoming of film, is that it cannot deliver [that] to you. The sweat, the humidity, the body odor.”
As in real life, Boys State is as much about politics as policy, and about strategy rather than civics. Instagram and Code Pink and Ben Shapiro come up a lot more than John Locke or the Founding Fathers. There’s also plenty of frivolity, but not any more than in the actual Texas Lege. One legislative proposal: “Relocation of all Prius drivers to the state of Oklahoma.” There are dirty political tricks as well as raw idealism, both of which pop up in unexpected ways, and all the characters make surprising choices under pressure—ideologically, strategically, and emotionally.
Because it’s Boys State, the film also ends up being about masculinity, as well as whiteness. The film’s core cast of two Austin kids, one San Antonio kid, and one Houston kid isn’t necessarily representative of the overall program, and neither are Garza and Otero. At Sundance, Garza joked that they were “two sticks of cinnamon in a foam of milk,” and there are several moments in the film that turn on outright racism or lack of racial sensitivity. But there is also quite a bit of tolerance—and intolerance of racism—on display. Overall, the Boys State program likely skews whiter and more conservative than the current Texas population, much like the state’s actual government. In part this is because the American Legion itself is an older-skewing veteran’s organization and Boys State was originally founded, according to its own website, “to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps.” Moss says that Texas Boys State aspires to expand the diversity of its participants, particularly in South Texas. “They deeply believe in the mission of the program,” he says. “Of civil discourse and teaching how democracy is not a spectator sport.”
Moss and McBaine also found that the differences between the rural kids and the city kids, or the so-called liberals and conservatives, were not nearly as big as they expected. “We saw so many interesting ways in which they connect and maybe have more in common than they have that divides them. And the kids kind of recognize that.” They came to realize that seventeen-year-olds have their own political and social values that older generations still haven’t caught up to, including unexpected consensus (though not unanimity) on things like LGBT rights and universal background checks for gun ownership.
Of course, one of the purer—and therefore unreal—factors about Boys State, as Ben Feinstein noted after the screening, is that its “government” is untainted by money, lobbyists, or media scrutiny, to say nothing of the need to win the next election. Feinstein himself “got my feet in the mud” as one of the party chairmen, but he adds, “for every one political maneuver that probably wasn’t up to the standard of what America should be, there were ten examples of guys ignoring race or ignoring political views. Guys came together and worked towards a mission, and I thought that was really inspiring.”