In my junior year of High School, the most I remember getting up close and personal to government was a one day field trip with my intro to law class to the nearby county court house. We spent about twenty minutes talking to a judge in his chambers, which ended with him catching me off guard as looked at me at the end of his mini-lecture saying something to the (humorous) effect of “So don’t break the law!”
I can’t imagine myself at the age of 17 doing what the 17 year old boys in Boys State do, yet it has been happening since 1937. In that time, the American Legion has sponsored a week long camp in each state for High School Juniors, with each state having their own certain separate rules and guidelines (even though most have separate camps for boys and girls).
The list of alumni does not just include popular political names such as Bill Clinton, Samuel Alito, Joseph Lieberman, Tom Brokaw, Corey Booker, Rush Limbaugh, Mike Huckabee and the late Beau Biden. It also includes James Gandolfini, Roger Ebert, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Michael Jordan, and even his former Bulls coach Phil Jackson.
The film Boys State centers on the boys camp in Texas in the summer of 2018, attended by nearly 1000 boys from across the state. They are divided into two parties (the Federalists and the Nationalists), and, in one week, must try to get their candidate elected governor (the highest office of the camp), while also working in the senate to pass bills or even as news reporters/podcasters.
Of the boys, the film settles on following the stories of four of them: Ben Feinstein, Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall, and Rene Otero. What roles they pursue I will leave for you to decide (I would have a hard time forgiving myself if I spoiled this for you). Some of them come in more confident than others, as well as more gifted than others at public speaking. We see how each person is given choices that can make or break their “political career”. The result is some of the best character development I have seen in a film (documentary or non-documentary) in quiet some time.
This is no doubt thanks to the filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. They turn the idea of filming a bunch of 17 year old boys dipping their toes into the political world in the state of Texas (don’t just assume all are conservatives) and make it nothing short of riveting. They give the right amount of insight of remembering that these are just kids (speeches using the word “like” too much, trying to pass a bill on the right way to pronounce the letter “W”, etc), yet also about confronting the aforementioned crucial choices going forward. We see these moments, but are given our freedom (so to speak) to be smart about what the filmmakers are getting at, which is an attribute every great filmmaker has.
They also approach it in a way that can be reminiscent of reality TV. We get in depth interviews with the subjects (some of which give rather great quotes), while leaving us in the audience wondering the final results. It says a lot when you are anxious about a made up election that not only does not impact you, but already happened two years ago.
Parents, the movie is rated PG-13, mainly for language (not just swearing, but the content of it as well). This is understandable (again, we are talking about male teenagers). That said, I would think this a wonderful film for a teenager who has some form of interest in the political system.
The corruption of politics will, sadly, always be present, and many of the kids have to deal with that. Some take the moral high ground, while others do not. To paraphrase a quote from the great 1995 film The American President, being a leader is entirely about character.
The real question is not whether kids would desire to see this film, but would politicians. As stated before, there are a lot of those in the political arena who attended these camps as teenagers, and have indeed learned more as adults. That said, it would be nice to know some of the older crowd would remember what it was like to be as fascinated and naïve about how the government works as these kids are.
It reminds me about the quote from The Breakfast Club (another great movie about coming of age), when the school’s Dean (Paul Gleason) is speaking to the janitor, Carl (John Kapelos).
“You think about this: when you get old, these kids-when I get old-they’re going to be running the country…Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.”
This is easily one of the year’s best films.