MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
It happens every summer. The American Legion organizes 8-day events around the country in which hundreds of high school juniors gather together to learn about democracy and play politics. (There are separate events for boys as well as girls.) In the new documentary Boys State we get to observe the 2018 program that was held in the Texas state capital of Austin. The opening scenes show boys from a variety of locations boarding the bus that will take them to Austin and to the college campus where they will be staying. The majority of these teenage Texans are white and conservative, but there are persons of color as well as progressives in the mix, as well.
The event is incredibly well-organized. (I learned from the Texas American Legion website that participants are chosen by their high school. Tuition is only $295 per statesman.) The boys are randomly sorted into two political parties: The Nationalists and The Federalists. The two top positions are state district chairs and gubernatorial candidates. To run for governor, a candidate needs 30 signatures from other boys. Each party also has to develop their platform based on the issues of the day. According to Boys State, the two top issues of 2018 were the right to bear arms and abortion.
While filming hours of coverage, the filmmakers chose to follow four of the boys extensively: District chairs René Otero and Ben Feinstein and candidates for governor Steven Garza and Eddy Proietti Conti. Otero is a Black progressive, Feinstein is a ruthless conservative, Conti is a middle-of-the-road Italian-American, and Garza is the son of Mexican immigrants. (Robert MacDougal is also featured as a somewhat goofy and outspoken kid who is willing to say whatever the people want to hear; he doesn’t last long, but is good for a laugh.)
The filmmakers are given free rein to roam around the campus and the state house with these boys. As the week progresses, the campaigns are hit with smear tactics as well as social media memes and propaganda. These front runners are nimble, though, and the film lets us see vulnerabilities as well as some real talent. While I have nothing but respect for this annual event, two things did cross my mind as I observed Boys State in operation: 1. The front runners came to this thing with preexistent experience and talent (I don’t think that anyone can “learn” during the week how to make it to the top of the ticket); and 2. Gender-specific political camps are really anachronistic and out of step with our increasingly inclusive political scene.
This is really a great film and a good one for families to watch together. You will either find it hopeful or sad, depending on where your sympathies land (I’m hopeful). But you will also find it unforgettable, with a couple of young go-getters that we are bound to see active in politics for years to come.
(Boys State is available exclusively on Apple TV +, a streaming service for computers, Android, Apple and Roku devices of all kinds. A monthly subscription is $5.00 and you may cancel the service at any time; there is a 7-day free trial period.)
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Four halos: An entertaining and illuminating view on politics as filtered through the minds of teenage boys.
One pitchfork: Occasional mild swearing; political obfuscation of the truth.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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