Man oh man, BOYS STATE is quite a ride. I should have known what I was getting into with such a politically-charged documentary. But I didn’t know just how invested I would get in the documentary’s subjects, particularly Steven Garza. And by invested I mean hysterically sobbing at the end of the movie. I won’t spoil whether my tears were of the happy or frustrated nature, but just know I felt many, many things. And you will too… no matter where your political loyalties lie.
BOYS STATE follows several teenage boys as they navigate the annual American Legion-sponsored Boys State conference in Texas, a week-long exercise on self-governance. There are corresponding Boys States conferences in each state in the U.S. (minus Hawaii). As shown through the opening credits, some of the nation’s most leading political figures have attended Boys State, including Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Neil Armstrong, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.
Those chosen to attend each Boys State are some of the state’s top young leaders. Upon arrival, they are split into two fake “parties” and participate in drafting their party’s platform, introducing mock bills, campaigning, and eventually staging elections. The top prize is each party nominating a candidate for governor, with the results announced at the end of the conference. The documentary explores what lengths Boys State can be compared to the politics in Washington, DC and how far the subjects are willing to go to ensure their party and candidate wins.
All of the teens followed in the documentary are likable enough, though there is the inevitable movie villain Ben Feinstein, who made me vacillate between respecting his drive and also wanting to punch him in the face. He brought the most smarmy parts of political campaigning to the forefront in an attempt to win the election for his candidate. But will those below-the-belt tactics win at Boys State and if so, at what cost?
On the other end of the spectrum is René Otero, a quick-witted, intelligent orator that had some of my favorite moments of the film… from calling out the absurd lack of diversity at the conference to saying Feinstein was a fantastic politician. He quickly added, “But I don’t think a fantastic politician is a compliment either.” King! We also have your typical Texas bro (think Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused) Robert MacDougall, who is quick to leave his own morals behind to try his shot at the governorship. He did eventually win my heart by the end with his support of Steven Garza.
And now we have Steven Garza, who is one of the most likable documentary subjects I have ever seen. By the end of the film I didn’t know whether I wanted to die for him… or at least vote for him for U.S. President if he were to ever run. I get that documentaries are edited and this was clearly a great edit for Steven. But I genuinely feel like who he showed on-screen is who he is in real life and I am here for it.
This is going to make me sound old, but I cannot believe how inspiring this young man is. Even if you don’t agree with Garza politically, that is what makes his views and temperament even better. He treated Boys State as a way to learn more about those he may not agree with politically and to see if he can bring competing views together to better his country (or in this case, fictional state). If Boys State is supposed to be an experiment, Garza is the Professor Zimbardo.
Definitely check out BOYS STATE on Apple TV+ the second you get the opportunity. It presents a sobering microcosm of our current political climate and will certainly make you think about the ways America’s deeply engrained political divisions can even filter into fictional situations like Boys State. While almost two hours may seem long for a documentary on a week-long summer camp, I can assure you I was enthralled the whole time. I would be surprised if by the end you don’t get out your clipboard and join me in campaigning for Garza 2040. In the meantime, we can stick to lobbying for a companion movie following Girls State to see if similar dynamics play out there.
My Review: A-