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In ‘Boys State,’ Our Modern Dystopia Is a High School Election

Gun control, racism and tears: Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine discuss what they learned spending a week chronicling 1,100 Texas teenagers trying to form a mock government

For many viewers, Boys State may be a tense reminder of what awaits us this fall. With the presidential election less than three months away, this superb documentary about a mock campaign waged at Texas Boys State casts into sharp relief what’s so exhilarating, intoxicating and nerve-racking about our imperfect democracy. Taking place over one week in Austin in the summer of 2018, the film immerses us in the annual meetup of approximately 1,100 17- and 18-year-olds from across the state, all to form a fictional government that requires candidates to run for office. Divided randomly into two parties — the Federalists and the Nationalists — the attendees quickly fall into tribes, determined to defeat their rivals at the polls. Never mind that they’ve all just met and have yet to even determine what their party platform is — you know how savage teenage boys can be.

Boys State is the brainchild of married directing duo Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, who seem to have an affinity for chronicling American subcultures that articulate the state of the union in unexpectedly emotional ways. (Their 2014 documentary The Overnighters, about the people swept up in the North Dakota oil boom, is one of the most moving and incisive nonfiction portraits of the last 10 years.) Like every state’s edition, Texas Boys State is about more than politics — the film shows us glimpses of a talent show and a fairly technologically sophisticated onsite news team —  but Moss and McBaine were specifically drawn to the program’s electoral process. We watch as contenders for different offices make speeches, press the flesh and debate one another — at the end of the week, the Federalist and Nationalist candidates go in front of the voters, and a winner is chosen. 

As a result, Boys State captures an interesting electoral dynamic in which budding politicians gain office but then don’t have to do any actual leading or governing. As McBaine puts it, “Once you get [elected], that’s sort of beside the point.”

If this makes Boys State sound like one more big-contest documentary — a new iteration of Spellbound or Mad Hot Ballroom — what’s remarkable about the film is how Moss and McBaine turn these political races into a multi-pronged metaphor for masculinity, popularity, democracy and competition. (For the record, there is a separate Girls State.) To prepare, the filmmakers traveled around Texas pre-interviewing several of the attendees months before Boys State got underway, hoping to find a diverse, compelling crop of subjects to follow during the actual event. 

The legwork paid off: Boys State focuses on four boys — Steven Garza, a shy, quiet leader who’s the son of Mexican immigrants; Robert MacDougall, an outgoing Austin athlete; Ben Feinstein, an ambitious political junkie and double-amputee who will head the Federalist party; and René Otero, a Chicago transplant and leader of the Nationalists who’s one of the few Black attendees — and watches them interact with one another and the larger electorate. Steven and Robert are both seeking the Nationalist nomination for governor, which ends up being a tense showdown because of race and differing political agendas. (Steven believes in sensible gun control, a minority opinion among these red-blooded young Texans. Robert actually agrees with Steven, but decides it’s politically prudent of him to cater to this largely white, conservative electorate.)

Boys State has been around since 1935, advertising itself as “among the most respected and selective educational programs of government instruction for U.S. high school students.” Everyone from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney to Cory Booker has taken part in Boys State, but even if you never attended, the movie may stir up long-buried childhood memories. Forget presidential-election anxiety — just the image of a thousand unruly, awkward teenage boys acting out and jockeying for supremacy may remind you of your least-favorite elements of adolescent life. Lord of the Flies has frequently been cited in reference to Boys State — Moss and McBaine brought it up when I spoke to them by phone a couple weeks ago — and, indeed, the primal masculinity on display can be both charming and chilling. But there are ample surprises in store as well. These boys prove to be far more complex than we might expect — that was certainly the experience the filmmakers had as well. 

The movie, which won Sundance’s U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, arrives on Apple TV+ on Friday, when audiences will get caught up in the backstabbing and electioneering, as well as the deeper themes at play. I spoke to the directors about what makes a good orator, why most Boys State attendees don’t end up running for office in real life, and what it’s like to be surrounded by that many unsupervised boys. 

Warning: Major spoilers follow for Boys State.

While watching Boys State, I had this strange spasm of panic remembering my own insecurities as a teenage boy. That sort of tribal mindset came rushing back to me.

McBaine: I think you do bring your high-school self to making a film about high school. I’m not sure that I knew that when we initially conceived the project, but certainly once we got there and confronted the reality of a room of 17-year-old boys, what I brought was the preconceived idea about what I was going to see. And some of that is scary, Lord of the Flies kind of stuff. But the more that I settled in for the week and became more comfortable with the context, the more subtleties I could see — and that’s something that my adult self was doing, not my high school self.

Someone like Steven, who is kind of an old soul and a more mature 17-year-old, he could really transcend all of that high school stuff. 

Moss: Even though he seems shy, he has an internal confidence that most of us probably didn’t have at that age — I certainly didn’t. 

When you’re watching a scripted teenage film, you can really separate yourself from the anguish that we all felt as outsiders. I wasn’t a popular kid — Amanda was maybe, but not me. And to a degree [it’s] why I’m a documentary filmmaker — I mean, I always feel some sense of alienation. And I think why I gravitated to Steven initially as a character is he seemed like he was apart from — but also really planning to engage with — this [electoral] process.

You’re parents. Did making the film give you any thoughts about how children are raised — or how you raise your kids?

McBaine: Our kids are a little younger — also, we have daughters — so it’s not a direct correlation. But it was really exciting and energizing to be around 17-year-olds, because [they’re] this weird combination of “young” and “old.” I mean, some of the people we filmed were brilliant — not just the folks that we featured in the film, but there were some really deep thinkers on both the right and left. They just struck me as being ready to be congressmen — I didn’t see a whole lot of difference in how adults would be doing the job. But then, two seconds later, there would be a moment of jackassery that is emblematic of a 17-year-old who’s still either playing a game or is uncomfortable in his gangly arms and legs. And that would remind me, “Oh, these are kids.” 

It’s hard to see a 17-year-old who’s cynical about politics or the future of America. It’s hard to see people parrot whatever news they’re watching or whatever their parents are saying. It’s hard to see them not think for themselves. It’s all these things that, as a parent, you walk in and you want to shake somebody and say, “You’re your own person.” But more often I was surprised, actually, by the amount of independent thinking and mature thinking that we ended up gravitating toward. I mean, we didn’t spend time with all 1,000 of them…

Moss: Nor did we have to after a certain point, because of our investment in our [specific] subject. We were interested in the policy debate, the process, and there were people who stayed on the sidelines [of that process] and never, ever found a place. I’ve been in that position, too — I get it. But for us, the story lived with these guys who were going to throw themselves into it: “We’re ambitious. We’re going to navigate this world.” 

In past interviews, you’ve mentioned that Boys State was partly inspired by the 2016 presidential election results. Were you hoping to find proof that Gen Z might somehow correct the mistakes made by previous generations?

Moss: I don’t think we were feeling that when we embarked on the project. It was what we took away, but at the time, I think it was more a sense that there was an opportunity to explore a set of questions around the ability of us as Americans — in this case, embodied in teenage boys — to engage with people whose politics were different. Crossing those [political] lines, that was really interesting to us — there are so few spaces like that. 

The narrative of Parkland — these young 17-year-olds leading these political movements across our world and our country — really emerged as we were thinking about the film. We came to discover the maturity [of our subjects] — and they continue to discover it, too, as well as their own intelligence and ability to reflect on decisions they made only two years ago. That’s arisen out of the project.

At Texas Boys State, the boys are divided into two parties: Federalists and Nationalists. And pretty quickly, it becomes this turf war between the two sides, even though they don’t actually know what their party even stands for. Boys just immediately get into this “We must crush the other team” mentality. 

McBaine: The setup at Boys State with two parties does create a kind of us-versus-them, sports-like ethos. People coalesced around their own party before there was a platform. 

But it’s also a little strange because Texas Boys State spends the seven days letting the candidates campaign. At the end, they win office, but they don’t do any of the actual governing that politicians do.

Moss: That’s why the legislature was interesting. They play a smaller part in our film, because none of our characters were part of the legislature. But they do enact laws, although they don’t execute them because there’s no world beyond the week of Boys State for them to actually enforce them. 

But it’s an interesting question to ponder: What would an expansion of this experiment for boys and girls look like? It might be some form of governance. Is that possible? Who would, for example, empower them to pass laws that govern their own conduct? But in fact, they do. I’ll give you an example: René led the Nationalist party, and one thing you don’t see in the film was him writing the rules of impeachment in such a way that he could protect himself if there was an impeachment threat [against him].

McBaine: At some [Boys States], people get elected on the first day and then the remainder of the week is actually governing, figuring out budgets and that kind of thing. Texas Boys State was interesting to us because it was about electoral politics — it’s about how you get elected. If you’re Steven, [you learn], “Oh, retail politics works for me.” Being true to himself and just being a person of integrity worked for him. He managed to summon a group of very conservative and very white people to follow him — I think that was a real learning-by-doing situation. You never would’ve expected that. 

With Robert, obviously, you see him wrestle with all the questions that probably every real politician grapples with: How much am I going to reveal of what I truly believe? How about I just get elected first, and then I can be my true self? But by then, who are you? That [process] we wanted to really follow.

Robert

How much did your cameras — and you choosing certain candidates — affect the overall vibe? This is a generation very comfortable photographing themselves, of course, but did they feel like celebrities — or special — because you were following them?

Moss: Steven has a great response to this question — I’ll try to answer it through his perspective. Of course, we accept as documentary filmmakers that there’s a complicated relationship between subject and camera — between subject and filmmaker. But what Steven said is that there was so much going on that he really quickly set us aside as a factor. 

In terms of how it shaped how he was perceived by others, much like the national media may bring validation to one candidate by virtue of attention, I think that’s likely a factor — but, ultimately, it didn’t solve his problem of getting signatures [to get on the ballot for governor]. He had to work enormously hard despite our presence. And then, [a candidate we barely see in Boys State] won the governorship — and we didn’t even start to film with him until Day Five or Six…

McBaine: The camera isn’t what made Steven’s [gubernatorial] speech in the middle of that film so amazing. That was at all Steven. Is it possible having a camera on him gave a kid like Steven that little extra confidence? I don’t know, but once he got onto that stage, that was all him. That speech is really what got people to vote for him — and his one-on-ones with [constituents] before that. 

You have to understand the environment we were filming in. The camera was noticeable — we have big cameras — and there were six cameramen and women. We were a presence, but we do our best to be as invisible as possible, knowing, of course, we can’t totally be. But there’s also 700 other people in the room, and they’re all making a lot of noise. We were part of this world of what is happening. 

Moss: There’s not quite a campaign press corp, but Boys State News is also covering all these events with their own cameras. They’re a little bit smaller, because it’s boys doing the reporting…

McBaine: But their presence was bigger, in some ways, because they were less skilled at disappearing. [Laughs]

Moss: Yeah, that’s true. [Laughs]

René

René emerges as a compelling figuring during the documentary. He’s the furthest  thing from a jock, but he commands a room when he speaks — he’s got this attitude where he’s not gonna take any guff from anybody. But my understanding is that he wasn’t someone you had spotlighted from the initial interview process.

Moss: We met him the way you met him during that extraordinary speech where he talks about his case study for Harvard. Right prior to that, you’ve got a [candidate] who does the Boy Scout oath as his speech — and then you got a boy who proclaims that his masculinity won’t be infringed. And then, suddenly, René gives that speech, which is an adult speech. Being in the room when we witnessed that was electric: “My god, this is the voice we’ve been waiting for.” 

René is like the adult in the room, and to see him capture that conservative and largely white room was like a gift from the documentary gods for us. We were looking actively for a Black voice in this largely white experience, and he’s such a vibrant, complicated, funny character. It’s anguishing, too, to see him go through that experience near the end of the film [where a racist Instagram post goes out about him]. That was something real in this simulation. That racism he experiences everyday, but to see it through his eyes was pretty shocking.

It touches on a topic teenagers really understand, which is bullying. How much of that did you see during the week?

McBaine: I didn’t see a whole lot of that in general, and maybe that’s because we have the camera — I don’t know. 

Moss: We got the sense that the program, which has been around for a long time, has got one foot in the 1950s and one foot in the 21st century — and that’s a lot like our country, and like the state of Texas, culturally, politically and socially. I think those guys in Texas who organized the program, they’re really committed to moving it forward.

McBaine: René was bullied. [The racist Instagram post] was the one time that the program did step in.

Moss: They called an unplanned assembly in which they addressed all 1,000 boys and said, “This behavior isn’t acceptable.” But prior to that, true to their word, [the organizers] had really stepped back and allowed this process to be driven by the boys themselves. So that was interesting, and not surprising, to see — but that’s the one time they stepped in to provide adult supervision.

I was surprised that, for all the testosterone often on display, it isn’t necessarily the most macho guys who won elections. I sorta assumed a good-looking, charming, muscular athlete like Robert would be a slam dunk. 

Moss: I think the contest between empathy and one of strength — almost militancy — that’s a struggle that we see play out on the national stage. In part, these boys are wrestling with who they are as young men — we see masculinity in flux here. But it mirrors our national politics. Are you a compassionate leader? Or are you something else?

McBaine: When we set out to make this project, I don’t think we were necessarily thinking we were going to be investigating masculinity — but, of course, once we got there, we saw quickly we had this incredible window into boyhood circa #MeToo and discussing toxic masculinity and all these really interesting questions for someone that age. 

When I mentioned earlier about going there with my high-school ideas about what I was going to see, there was a lot of machismo and there were group dynamics that were sometimes borderline. But I was surprised by how much emotion existed in that week — the degree of vulnerability, the degree of bonding, the degree of listening, the degree of empathy, the actual crying. I didn’t expect to see crying when I went to film Boys State, to be honest. And it wasn’t marginalized — these were people right in the middle of the pack. And I think that’s pretty amazing, actually. I loved these guys. 

It’s striking to hear a 17-year-old excuse shady strategizing by saying, “Hey, that’s politics.” That happens in Boys State — Ben is especially unsettlingly good at electioneering. But is that really something a teenager understands? Or are they just imitating something they heard on TV or from their family?

Moss: I don’t think they’re parroting it. Ben’s pretty sophisticated — I think that that’s who he was at that time, how he thought of himself as a master strategist. I remember, in that [initial] casting interview, one of the things he said to me was, “I know how to make friends, and I know how to make enemies.” I’ve never met a 17-year-old who said, “I know how to make enemies” — but I’ve also never met a 17-year-old who had a Ronald Reagan doll. 

But I think what’s been so interesting in the two years since Ben went through this experience with us is to see him reflect on that process — that win-at-all-cost, zero-sum pure politics that he practiced. The film has given him a perspective on who his opposition were as human beings. I think that it’s forced in him a very honest reflection. 

One of the most powerful things to come out of Q&A conversations is Ben’s journey, because Ben is pretty “fixed” in the film. The others — like Robert and Steven — are really transformed. Ben came in as a master strategist, but now to see him reckoning with that and see him process that through the prism of where we are as a country now, two years later, is quite something. It’s a maturing that he’s engaged in, and it was very honest, recognizing the harmfulness of that kind of conduct for himself and for our national politics.

Gun rights become the central issue at your Boys State. Going in, did you have a sense that would be the case?

McBaine: We knew that gun rights were going to be [big]. This was three months after Parkland — and two weeks after Santa Fe in Texas, and these are 17-year-olds, they’re all in high school and it’s in Texas. So the leadership, even when we were in pre-production, knew this was going to be the debate that year. Every year [at Boys State], there’s a zeitgeist-y thing. It was secession the year before. One year, the big conversation was about speed-limit laws — thank god that wasn’t our year. [Laughs]

We didn’t know that Steven had been such a force in March for Our Lives in Houston [prior to attending Boys State]. We didn’t quite put that together that he was vulnerable politically until it came up. But, yeah, Texas is open carry, so it’s the perfect place for this kind of debate. 

Moss: And there were survivors at Boys State.

McBaine: That’s right, there were two survivors of the Santa Fe shooting at Boys State. Steven had lunch with one of them and said it was one of these really incredible moments of talking to someone. You bring your passion and position on any one issue, and then you get into a conversation with someone, a survivor, who comes at everything from a completely different point-of-view politically. To come out of that conversation with a better understanding of their point-of-view — but also some of the overlap that they found — was one of the most profound moments of the Boys State experience for him. 

Steven

When Steven addresses his party during the gubernatorial primary, it’s clear what an incredible speaker he is. I thought of Obama, someone else who, when he spoke, simply seemed authentic. This is an impossible question, I realize, but since you spent time with Steven, is there a way to explain what makes him such a good orator?

Moss: I don’t think you can explain it — you just feel it. That’s what’s remarkable about it. Part of it is that he’s not afraid of his emotion and expressing it. But that’s just one part of his gift. It’s the kind of gift that is bestowed upon some people, and it’s not learned — I mean, certainly, shaped and crafted — but it’s like having a beautiful singing voice. It’s like a [musical] instrument that you play with a beautiful spirit — or you sing in a way that invites people to listen and trust you. He has this quality.

I’m still grateful that we were able to be so close to him [during his gubernatorial speech] to deliver that experience that we felt and that you’re responding to in the audience. The beauty of Boys State was the flexibility that we had to be so close to these boys — we shot him right up close, six inches from his face, in that particular moment. With adult politicians and national political campaigns, you’re stuck in the back of the room and you’re removed from that [moment]. But I think [with Steven] we could fully deliver that moment where you’re like, “Okay, wait a minute. I might have to take this kid seriously.” It’s beautiful. It’s one of the most exhilarating moments that I’ve had as a filmmaker. 

I went to Boys State, several film people I know went to Boys State — none of us went into politics. Do you have any sense of what percentage of Boys State attendees actually go into the political field?

Moss: I don’t have any statistics to offer there. I suspect that for many who do go into politics, like Steven, [Boys State] isn’t the catalyst. They come engaged and they leave engaged, and maybe they get a taste of campaigning that they didn’t have. I know it’s not the intention of [Texas Boys State] to produce politicians. I think that they, first and foremost, really believe the value of the program is promoting civil discourse and engagement.

What’s nice to see is that, since the experience of Boys State, it’s really only Steven who is still interested in and committed to running for office — if he finds that that’s the best way for him to serve. But he plans to work on campaigns. René is active in the Black Lives Matter movement and doing work in his local community around racism, so that’s a very different kind of work. Robert has gone to West Point, and for him, that’s service. And Ben is studying history and wants to work in national security. Ben, of all people, you think would be the next Karl Rove, perhaps.

But I think that that’s probably emblematic of what the experience can be for the engaged young people who come to the program. It compels them to engage in different ways — and hopefully ways that are authentic to who they are. The paths you follow when you’re 17 are often wildly different than where you go later in life.

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