Short of watching a bald eagle burst into flames and drop into the ocean, the closest you can come to emotionally preparing yourself for the November election is streaming Boys State on Apple TV+.
Co-directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, Boys State presents an allegory of American politics in its coverage of the titular event, a week-long boot camp designed by the American Legion to introduce high school boys to the fundamentals of elections and government. To that end, hundreds of teens convene on a campus, split into two parties (the Nationalists and the Federalists), build platforms from scratch, and run for various municipal and state offices. The governor's seat represents the top spot. The program began in the late 1930s "to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps," and now runs annually across the country.
If you've ever looked at U.S. Senator Tom Cotton and thought, "Where the fuck did that goon begin his political training?" The answer, in part, is Boys State. Ditto Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Michael Dukakis, Chris Christie, Garth Brooks, Michael Jordan, and Jon Bon Jovi.
The American Legion Auxiliary created Girls State in the late '30s, too, but, for the purposes of this film, McBaine and Moss train their camera on the 2018 program in Texas, which features precious teens and agro clowns gunning for political dominance in a thrilling mock gubernatorial race.
The film snagged the Grand Jury Prize for documentary at Sundance earlier this year for good reason. The directors mix fly-on-the-wall storytelling with insightful one-on-one interviews to build complex, compelling profiles of four major characters, all of whom reflect the best and worst aspects of our contemporary political discourse.
They establish meek-mannered Steven Garza, the third son of Mexican immigrants and the only one of his siblings on track to graduate high school, as the film's wholesome progressive hero. Watching him quietly and determinedly navigate a political landscape full of white MRA teens and Ben Shapiro stans all while learning only the best lessons from his victories and failures had me near tears every time he popped up onscreen. René Otero, one of the few black students, was another hero. His humor, his quick thinking, and his magnetism made it seem as if he were playing chess while everyone else was watching revenge porn on TikTok.
On the other end of the political spectrum was Ben Feinstein, a bright Reaganite and double amputee who wanted nothing more than to win—and who could blame him? Winning is the point of elections, and it's the point of Boys State. Then you had Robert MacDougall, an apparently wealthy cowboy who off-gassed a lot of 1980s quarterback energy and who disingenuously espoused political positions in order to win.
No matter which little Texan king you end up rooting for, McBaine and Moss clearly want us all to grapple with the relationship between two Big Ideas.
Big Idea #1: Though we say we want honest politicians, the win-at-all-costs brand of American electioneering combined with the tribalism inherent in a two-party structure rewards only the most ruthless, self-interested fucking people on the planet. Big Idea #2: Those who tirelessly engage in the task of finding common ground while always taking the high road might overcome all the self-interestedness and the ruthlessness that drives our politics, and thus do some good for the country.
McBaine and Moss respectfully present the teens who come to understand and accept Big Idea #1 as proto-Karl Roves who will continue dispassionately ruining our politics for the thrill of the W, and they lionize the teens who understand and accept Big Idea #2 as the proto-Obamas who may eventually save us from ourselves, if only we'll let them.
As a modern parable for our times, this sort of framing only goes so far. In general, it's hard to argue that American politics could use less civil discourse and compromise in government. However, while sitting opposing parties around "the table" and hashing out a compromise might be the best way of amicably ending an argument, it's not necessarily the best way of solving a problem.
The problems facing the 21st Century are too complex and too far along to wait for Jeff to figure out that guns do, in fact, kill people. The ongoing climate catastrophe, rank and rampant racism, economic inequality and its associated ills, gun violence, collapsing democracies—the answer to all that shit isn't a smile, a handshake, and universal background checks.
From a storytelling perspective, I also spent a lot of time wondering why these kids believed what they believed, and wondering what their conversations about the issues actually sounded like. The snippets of debates the filmmakers offered suggested that the teens know Tucker Carlson talking points and some "statistics," and maybe that's all I needed to hear. But the film seeks to, in part, show us our future in the present, and it was somewhat difficult to determine whether a candidate's ideology or temperament drove the teens' votes.
So, to the extent that Boys State serves to promote civility and compromise as an antidote to the country's political problems? I'm not buying. But, to the extent the film serves a gorgeous and fascinating look at the machinations of male American teens, and how doomed they all are to repeat the idiotic mistakes of the ideological forebears? I'm absolutely buying. And to the extent the film serves as the first campaign commercial for a Garza presidency, then I'm buying and sending promos to my friends and texting VOTE to 30330.