What happens when Texas teens run the U.S. government? ‘Boys State’ finds out

A24 at Vanderbilt will be hosting a free virtual screening of “Boys State” this Tuesday, Sept. 22, followed by a discussion between Vanderbilt faculty members Dr. Carrie Russell, Dr. Josh Murray and Meagan Smith.


(A24/Apple TV+)

Brendan Sawyer, Staff Writer

I never studied at Boys State. As a graduate of a Catholic all-boys high school, however, the establishing shots of “Boys State” (2020) were all too familiar. Matching t-shirts, push up contests, chants of “roo-rah” and “I believe that we will win”—the film is a traumatic flashback to my adolescence. It’s also a remarkable reflection of the 2020 political landscape. 

“Boys State” documents a week-long venture where 1100 17-year old boys emulate the state’s entire electoral procedure. The kids are divided into two parties, federalists and nationalists, and can run for a myriad of positions within that party. The film focuses on four ambitious young men gunning for the highest seats of them all: governor and party chairman. Protagonists Ben Feinstein, René Otero, Robert MacDougal and Steven Garza vary immensely on the political compass but share the motivation, talent, honesty and humanity that drives them through the film.

I was lucky enough to sit in a Zoom “college conference call” with ¾ of the participants along with directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. The filmmakers explained the intense week-long shoot followed by the grueling year-long editing process; “Boys State” clearly reflects that effort. Moss and McBaine marvelously mimic the manic pace of such an expedited program. 

“[There was] a sense of importance and ‘Wow these people believe in me, I’m gonna shoot big,’” Feinstein said. “It was definitely a confidence boost.”

And these boys radiated confidence. Whether it was Otero’s resounding speeches, MacDougal’s charismatic chase, Garza’s insightful remarks or Feinstein’s relentless campaigning, I could not take my eyes off any of the four. While the directors noted how they implemented wide angles to incorporate action and reaction in a single shot, it was hard to devote attention anywhere but on the film’s stars. Their multidimensional relationships and conflicts further ramp up the film’s already accelerating drive. 

The call really deepened my appreciation for the film’s subjects because even though Moss and McBaine painted them as larger-than-life figures; they’re still just kids. Feinstein bashfully admitted to missing a question after answering a knock on his dorm room door. Garza fretted over technical issues with his laptop. 

That’s what I really loved most about “Boys State”—for better or worse, it was deeply human. Sure, there were some chants and beliefs boasted by a boy or two that made me stick to my stomach, but there’s something so deeply genuine about pointing a camera at teenage boys and pushing “record.” The four stars of the film make some of the most insightful and profound statements on politics I’ve heard all year (and it’s 2020). Even on the call, these boys showed wisdom far beyond their years. 

“Can we get something done in the United States politically?” Steven said. “Can we put aside the labels of Democrat, Republican, Conservative, Liberal, Socialist, whatever you want to call yourself. Can we sit down at a table, hear each other out and walk away with some sort of agreement, no matter how deep or how light it may have been?”

This theme of compromise and understanding rings throughout the whole film; whether it’s through the sheer success of Otero and Garza in an overwhelmingly conservative body, or the general attitude of the boys’ confessional interviews. “Boys State” shows what can happen when politically diverse minds join face-to-face to share and listen to one another. In a time as politically divided as today, the filmmakers believe it’s something our country needs. 

“I don’t know that we saw a solution to our divisions,” Moss said. “But I do know there’s a yearning out there for having a different tone and tenor to our politics, and if this film shines a light on that, it’s a start. It’s up to Steven, Robert, Ben, René and their generation to be part of that.” 

A24 at Vanderbilt will be hosting a free virtual screening of “Boys State” Tuesday, Sept. 22, followed by a discussion between Vanderbilt faculty members Dr. Carrie Russell, Dr. Josh Murray and Meagan Smith. You can RSVP for the screening here and register for the discussion here.  

“Boys State” is an Apple Original Films and A24 release. Now available on Apple TV+.