Oh, this is a tough one. I have a lot of feelings about this documentary, and I think most of them can be categorized as ‘deep concern for the future of our democracy.’
Boys State is a documentary that follows a group of Texas high school boys selected by the American Legion (a patriotic veteran support organization) to participate in a mock state election.
The boys are supposed to be learning about democracy and elections by forming parties, electing candidates, and then determining a party policy platform. Mostly, they ended up in shouting matches, competing to spew the most divisive rhetoric at each other in the pursuit of winning their peers’ votes. That was when they weren’t creating (sometimes racially offensive) memes and trying to impeach their elected official for shutting down debate on statewide secession from the union.
It was chaos.
Inside the chaos, the filmmakers found a few moments of quiet. However, ultimately the candidate focused less on flash and more on policy lost the election, seemingly from a politicized gaffe from the party chair involving the failure to give equal time to his opponent during a debate.
There are two different reviews here: my thoughts on Boys State the event, and my thoughts on Boys State the documentary.
Boys State as an event seems contrary to everything we should be doing to raise civically-minded individuals. By focusing on the election process instead of on governing, it brought out the worst parts of our democratic process. Polarization, personal attacks, and personalities won over compromise, thoughtfulness, and service.
The process rewarded loud and silly candidates.
It was very Lord of the Flies. Tribalism reigned supreme. When the boys were arbitrarily divided into two parties, the conversation immediately became an ‘us vs. them,’ even when there was no belief system to mark the differences between the two groups. Candidates intentionally took the most extreme positions publicly, even though they admitted to the camera that they did not believe them privately. It was the perfect example of the rotting ickiness of elections.
Boys State as a documentary did its best to find a balance between hilarious chaos and cathartic calm. It picked a varied set of participants to follow, and told their backstories well without exploiting its subjects.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end up getting the balance right.
Boys State didn’t lean enough into the zaniness of hundreds of teenage boys shouting into microphones for the documentary to be funny. In fact, a lot of the ‘funny’ moments felt incredibly sad for what it told us about what these boys think is valuable in getting elected.
On the other hand, Boys State didn’t get a satisfying emotional payoff from their underdog story because the underdog lost. Following the calm in the eye of the storm doesn’t dry election night tears. There was no redemption arc about how policy can beat rhetoric.
In the end, neither the event nor the documentary is emotionally satisfying.
The event is all gimmicks, and no civics.
In the documentary, there isn’t enough laughs to make you forget how sad you are that this is what these kids think our democracy is.
Neither is particularly inspiring for the future.
Vote in November: https://vote.gov/