Lord of the Gadflys: ‘Boys State’

A mock political camp for boys reveals much about the state of our union.

Boys State sounds like a political psychologist’s fever dream. For a week each summer since 1935, the American Legion-sponsored conference randomly assigns high school-age boys to competing political parties. They then develop platforms, run campaigns, and hold elections — ultimately building a functioning mock government.

The gendered program (there’s also a Girls State) is competitive, with the expectation that many will hold positions in office. Alumni include Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, and Rush Limbaugh. 

The 2017 program in Texas voted to secede from the United States. The absurdity caught the attention of documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jess Moss. The filmmakers felt the subject was timely, especially in the aftermath of the 2016 election and our country’s increased polarization.

“It was funny,” McBaine says. “But it was also sort of profound in the sense of, is this a reflection of a national mood? Do we no longer believe in this union?”

And so, the pair ventured to Austin in 2018 to film what would become Boys State, a documentary about the summer camp and a meditation on the state of our nation. 

Boys State premiered at Sundance earlier this year, capturing the US Documentary Grand Jury Prize — as well as a record-breaking $12 million acquisition from A24 and Apple. 

The film offers the viewer a glimpse into an alternate universe, complete with its own news station and podcast. McPaine and Moss’ lens is in perpetual motion — moving between hallway conversations and party speeches, and highlighting just how fast-paced the week is. Endless handshakes and “What’s your platform?” exchanges are enough to give any introvert second-hand anxiety.

“This was probably the hardest film I’ve worked on because of all the things that were happening simultaneously,” McBaine says, reflecting on the week.

Texas Boys State (there are camps in every state) has over 1,000 participants, and after weeks of pre-interviews and scouting, McBaine and Moss followed four individuals for the film — two conservatives, two liberals — who help drive home the fact that Texas is very much a “purple state,” with a diverse population and outrageous, often counterintuitive politics. 

Ben Feinstein is a double-amputee from San Antonio who loves Ronald Reagan. He seems primed for politics, with his ruthless strategy and sharp sense of humor. Robert MacDougall, a loud and charismatic football player from Austin, adopts an incredibly conservative platform.

Rene Otero is a recent transplant from Chicago and stands out as a progressive Black American in a room full of conservatives. “I’ve never seen so many white people ever,” he notes, in the film. A fiery speech, however, quickly gains him respect and power. 

Steven Garza, who grew up in Houston with a formerly undocumented mother, is the unstated protagonist and underdog. With his outspoken honesty, the Bernie Sanders supporter makes surprising headway at the elections for governor, the highest position at Boys State. 

The four struggle constantly with unforeseen obstacles. On the first night, Steven struggles to get the amount of peer endorsements required to even run for Governor. Ben makes a sudden shift from running for Governor to Party Chair, realizing that others started announcing their campaigns earlier than him.

While Steven and Rene went to Boys State with little expectations or planning, Ben did his research. “But of course, as soon as you get there and you’re exposed to the tempo, the heat, the pace walking, just the sheer amount of people, it’s, you know, it’s totally different,” he says in an interview with SF Weekly.

The film explores masculinity, racism, and civil discourse, but never explicitly. Participants do spontaneous push-ups and exclaim into the microphone, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed.” Someone scrolls through racist memes on an “Impeach Rene” Instagram account, and another peers over peoples’ shoulders to see who they voted for. 

“We also like to respect the complexity we encounter,” Moss says, explaining her and McBaine’s approach to documenting what they saw. “We also are pretty direct and forceful at pointing our camera where it needs to point and we’re not going to flinch and we’re going to show it.”

The film becomes a series of vignettes as it follows the characters running their campaigns, and it’s easy to feel disheartened. Issues with our current political system — like gridlock, dishonesty, and shameless pandering — unfold at Boys State as well. 

We grimace as boys respond to reductive speeches with chanting and cheering. When a small but outspoken group calls for his impeachment as Party Chair, Rene toys with the idea of just voting in favor of everything, even if it creates a divided party. “I’m gonna keep my job if it’s the last thing I do,” he says in the film. And Ben emerges as a villain when he engineers successful smear campaigns against his rivals. 

The opposing parties get excited antagonizing each other during the final elections, and the entire time it’s unclear exactly how their platforms differ. “A message of unity as good, as it sounds and as good as it ultimately is for our country, is not winning anyone any elections,” Ben says in the documentary. 

One of the film’s central dilemmas is exactly this: picking between being true to one’s beliefs or trying to win elections. When Robert runs for governor, his strategy is the latter. It’s a surprisingly tender moment when he privately reveals that he’s actually pro-choice, but didn’t think that view would have gotten him far.

This also raises questions of when to compromise, especially in a political climate as polarized as Boys State, the state of Texas, and America as a whole. The film strikes a hopeful tone when Steven beats out Robert and makes the final elections for governor. He doesn’t lie about his progressive politics, even when people label him a gun-grabber or a communist. Instead, he re-hashes that, above all, he’s working for the common good. 

When we put our cynicism aside, we see that the characters are motivated by an incredible amount of commitment to their campaigns. Steven recalls scarfing down lunch in five minutes to spend the rest of the time introducing himself to new people. 

Moss says it made him optimistic that Otero and Garza ultimately gained leadership at the program, as both progressives and young men of color. And while McBaine was nervous that they would encounter a Lord of the Flies-type environment at Boys State, she was happy to find camaraderie and empathy.

The characters were pleasantly surprised in similar ways. Robert had his expectations of an uncompromising crowd completely flipped. “I found that there is willingness to have those conversations and to find those true ways forward, without the gridlock and the hate and the anger involved,” he explains in an interview with SF Weekly.

“At first I was like, this is a conservative indoctrination camp and then I was like, no this is literally what every liberal needs,” Rene reflects in the film. 

This attitude turned into action as well. The Texas Boys State legislature ended up passing a background check bill for buying guns, and Moss describes their ability to find common ground in one of the “third rails of American political life” as remarkable. “This generation is not waiting for adults to solve their problems.” 

Ultimately, as hectic as the camp was, the future it paints is one of hope — at least for now.

“There’s a really, really great George Carlin quote,” Steven says. “I believe it’s, ‘Inside of every cynic is a disappointed idealist.’”

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