If you’re anything like me, you may begin watching Boys State like you would a horror movie, through the slats of your fingers, holding your breath. Your nerves have taken such a beating in the last four years that they’re shot to shit on a near constant basis. Your soul winces when you go on social media. Any given New York Times push notification should have a trigger warning.
In the wrong hands Boys State may have been that horror movie. As a woman I’m hard pressed to find many things scarier than an auditorium full of only men and boys, wearing the same thing, chanting, yelling, standing at podiums and saying things like, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed” to a roar of applause. The documentary’s subject is what amounts to a summer sleepover camp at its highest frequency: Boys State is an annual program in Texas sponsored by the American Legion for high school junior boys interested in politics. If I’ve made it sound piddly, it’s not. It’s been around since 1935 and notable alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. If you think it’s very conservative, it is. If you think it’s very white, it is.
The weird (surprising, refreshing, relieving?) thing is it’s not quite as conservative as you might think, not quite as white as you might think. The mock election process is far more in control than you’d ever give several hundred teenage boys credit for and not nearly as triggering as the infringement of masculinity line would lead you to believe.
Is abortion the most frequently brought up issue (other than gun control) upon which these literal boys are creating a party platform without a single uterus to be found? Absolutely. You’d be tempted not to expect anything more from these boys to whom a woman’s body is not autonomous but governable flesh… but you’d be jumping the gun. What emerges from the early stages of Boys State is a clear cast of characters, the obvious ideological elite among a very large group:
There’s Ben, the junkiest of these political junkies, who keeps a talking action figure of Ronald Reagan in pride of place in his bedroom and gets off on meritocracy. There’s Robert, the overly enthusiastic bro with the kind of energy that can rally a crowd with a rousing gesture to his crotch. He made some cash off of bitcoin and how lives in a home with a secret door behind a bookshelf like a Bond villain. There’s René, more composed than any teenager ought to be, impossibly and impressively centered. He’s got chic as fuck colonial-era founding father glasses and wins people over with passion where others only have division. And then there’s Steven, the most hopeful of the bunch. He’s a quiet, borderline meek progressive who got into politics because of Bernie Sanders and looks to continue in that vein.
You’ll think you have all of them pegged in their first few minutes. You will be wrong. They have narrative arcs that bend in the most unexpected places. There is growth and change among them. You see some of them discover the merits of our political system, others discover the faults, to both their fascination and disappointment. You’ll start to root for some in spite of yourself, to condemn others. You’ll find yourself holding your breath at the film’s climax. Not in the way you would in a horror movie, but in the way you would in the defining moments of a sport’s championship. You might cry.
Politics in this country is fraught, contentious, generally infuriating and sometimes all-consuming in its goddamn misery. But if Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.