Review by Adam Sirdoreus
There are very few things in the world that are as scary as the current state of politics. However, the idea of teenage boys forming their own government might give that a run for its money. In the latest film from A24 and Apple TV+, Boys State documents the titular event from 2018. If you’re unfamiliar with Boys State, you aren’t alone! I had no clue what it was prior to watching. And thankfully, the film walks you through the process and intricacies of it all pretty thoroughly. The general gist of Boys State is that each year, over a thousand teenage boys join together in Texas to form a mock government. They choose to be in either the party of the “Federalists” or “Nationalists,” and can either run a campaign for election or back whichever fellow teen they lean most with.
This all intrigued me plenty from the get-go, but where the film really grabbed me was the dissection of how much of a role social media plays into how teens consume politics. There’s an entire section in the film where controversy arises because one teen forms an Instagram meme account to mock his opponent. In what seems like such an immature and basic move, it is crushing to the entire operation due to just how influential social media can be through the lens of a teenager. In fact, even the debates they have in person with one another seem to eerily resemble a lot of the political clashes we see on the news so often.
There is also a general undertone of the teens being self-aware of how politics work and how they are fed lies in order for politicians to earn their votes. And some of the teens here take that to heart, not running based on what they believe outside of Boys State – but instead, running on a platform of knowing what most of the young men among them believe and how that will rack them up the most votes. This is the oldest trick in the book when it comes to politics, but there is something quietly upsetting about seeing teens understanding the bullshit of politics to a tea and deceiving each other with such a straight face.
While there are absolutely so many moments that make you cringe, in both seeing politics at work and adolescence being molded by it, there are also just as many moments where the film is quietly hopeful and lovely. Two of the most interesting young men portrayed in the film are Steven and René. It isn’t fair to say they are some of the only progressive teens of the bunch, but they really are the focal points of the documentary when it comes to that side of the coin. And the way the film depicts them isn’t riveting simply because these ideals are shown and fought for by them in a camp filled up of mostly conservative teenagers; it is deeply inspiring because of how well Steven and René hold themselves together at such a young age. They show so much respect to not only one another, the other people in their party that they form friendships with, but also their opponents. It’s really beautiful.
The film is as equally hopeful and entertaining as it is concerning and thought-provoking. Directing duo Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss have crafted an intimate and timely documentary that should be shown in High Schools across the country. I was completely riveted by this film from start to finish. And if they ever feel inclined to do a documentary on the Girls State program, that also takes place in Texas each year, I’d be first in line to watch another documentary made by them. Truly one of the years best and a brilliant depiction of how youth can be influenced by our leaders.