Teens Emulate Politicians for Better or Worse in Compelling Documentary ‘Boys State’

Put hundreds of teenage boys together and tell them to form a government, and interesting things are bound to transpire. This is what happens in “Boys State,” a thought-provoking and highly amusing documentary from husband and wife team Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. For those unfamiliar, Boys State, along with its sister program Girls State, is an annual summer event sponsored by the American Legion where politically-minded young people in between their junior and senior year of high school come together to organize political parties and run mock elections. Famous alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Jane Pauley.

Moss and McBaine, who were interested in making a film exploring the political divide in the U.S., decided to document the 2018 Texas Boys State after reading about how the previous year’s group voted to secede from the Union. “That had become a news story, kind of a scandal,” recalled Moss to Entertainment Voice. “It was embarrassing, I think, to the program, that the boys had acted out, but also really reflective of those divisions. We thought, here’s a playful yet serious way to look at this through the eyes of young men in Texas from very different political backgrounds who are, in this case, coming together, face-to-face, to actually try to talk to each other, and that seems like a rare space in America.”

The participants in Texas Boys State turn out to be more diverse than one would think, and while we hear from dozens of the 2018 participants, Moss and McBaine largely focus on four very different young men, two liberal and two conservative. The liberals are Steven Garza, the inspiring son of Mexican immigrants, and René Otero, a charismatic African-American transplant from Chicago. To the right, we have Ben Feinstein, a self-described political junkie who has had to overcome the challenges of being a double amputee, and confident golden boy Robert MacDougal.

All four leads rise to leadership positions in their respective parties. Steven and Robert both run to be the gubernatorial nominee of the Nationalist Party, an honor that eventually goes to Steve, while René serves as chairman of the party. Ben, meanwhile, becomes the chairman of the Federalist Party. The guys all recently spoke with Entertainment Voice via Zoom, reflecting on their Boys State experience two years later. All four praised the program for exposing them to different viewpoints. 

“To me, it was to see people holistically,” answered Otero when asked what his biggest takeaway was. “Folks create their own politics based off where they grow up, their upbringings, their communities, the same way my politics are bred from those factors… That is really what I took away the most from this, that I cannot trust my preconceived notions. I cannot trust what the media tells me what somebody else’s beliefs mean. We can only trust the individual. In the end, I learned the most important part of politics is talking to one another.”

What unfolds during the six-day program is a gripping election process that is a microcosm of an actual state election, complete with TV and radio interviews, as well as social media accounts. The debates rage on, and with a less remarkable group of young men, the story may have fallen flat, but all four rise to the occasion. What’s most fascinating to watch is the transformations that take place in the guys. In a surprise twist, Robert, the one who best fits the mold of a conversative politician, declares his opposition to abortion during a speech to the cheers of the majority of participants, only to reveal in a behind-the-scenes interview that he is actually pro-choice; he just said what he thought he needed to say to receive support.

“With Robert, he really does learn about what it means to make choices as a politician running to get elected on something you don’t believe,” said McBaine. “That’s kind of an amazingly deep thing to learn in one week.”

“There’s certainly always going to be some value in knowing your audience, and that goes for all things, whether it be political opinions or the style of school project you’re going to make depending on the teacher,” said MacDougal. “But I really did learn that I can be more honest, and I can have these intelligent conversations and be able to explain my views to someone and listen to their views, and we can probably come away both better off for it.”

Robert comes to respect and support his opponent Steven, who has not only overcome bigger challenges to be at Boys State, but is also mature and idealistic, qualities that Robert recognizes are essential in the kind of leader they need. However, Steven is initially vague when it comes to some of his positions, and a backlash against him ensues after it’s uncovered through Instagram that he helped organize March for Our Lives Houston. Social media is weaponized as Ben, with support from Eddy, the Federalist gubernatorial candidate who is likened to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, leads the charge in a smear campaign against Steven and the Nationalists.

“One of the regrets I had about my experience was maybe not being vocal enough about my positions,” admitted Garza. “I’d rather not make it far and be true to myself and explain my positions, than to come off as unprincipled or immoral and not having any values. At this particular Boys State, knowing my audience, knowing that my position on guns wasn’t going to fly well with the majority of people out there — it’s a tightrope to walk.”

As for Feinstein, he also has come around to admiring both Steven and René’s idealism. “Some of the actions that I took in the documentary are not appropriate for the survival of a healthy democracy. It sounds dramatic, but I don’t think mudslinging and scare tactics and demagoguing are necessarily the best ways to keep democracy alive. I believe our system is fundamentally based on a system of responsibility. My biggest reflection is that responsibility is real. We can’t forget about it just because it’s inconvenient, or because we might lose the next election.” 

When all is said and done, the most valuable lesson the young men learn is how to listen and compromise, which they eventually did when it came to creating party platforms on issues such as gun control and immigration reform.

Garza was surprised how moderate most of the other young men really were at the end of the day after the boisterous speeches concluded. “On the surface, you have this very vocal minority yelling things into the microphone, yelling, ‘We’re going to castrate rapists,’ ‘We hate the Clinton lovers,’ and all these kinds of things. It’s crazy stuff that they’re saying, but then if you talk to the people, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I believe there should be some gun regulation,’ ‘I believe in the free market,’ ‘I believe in LGBT rights.’ I was surprised by the number of people who were willing to sit down with you and talk about policy and things that they want to see, and having a healthy — not even a debate, a conversation about it, even if you oppose their views.”

“With that, I found the immigration debate to be one of the most interesting in our party,” added MacDougal. “In Texas you see the politicians that we send to the state level and to Washington and you think, ‘Oh, they really don’t want any immigration.’ But if you talk to the people there, almost everyone there supported an effective and quick path to citizenship for immigrants.”

While Otero seemed to have the moral high ground, he had a surprising admission to make. “I think if I went back, I would probably take a few pages out of Ben’s book. I don’t believe in the process of mudslinging and demagoguing either, but I will say that Ben had a really strong control over his political party for the sake of never losing sight of what his goal was in the end. His goal was always to win, and my goals were more multifaceted.”

One of the most memorable lines in “Boys State” comes René as his journey is winding down. Speaking in a behind-the-scenes interview, calls Ben a fantastic politician, but adds that calling someone such is not a compliment. Pointing out that those in office or running for office on both sides of the aisle have resorted to mudslinging on the national stage, he believes that the best politicians are those who put people above party loyalty. “I’m starting to think we’re at a new age, a new era of defining what a politician truly is. For me, I know what a politician should be. A fantastic politician, one is worthy of the compliment, is one who works less like a trustee and more like a delegate. We need to have more direct communication between constituents and our political leaders.”

“I largely agree,” admitted Feinstein. “René was right at the end… When I was campaigning at Boys State, the fact that a lot of my actions never really struck me as, ‘Maybe this is too far. Maybe this isn’t how you treat another person.’ I think that speaks a lot to the example that’s being set for all of us.”

Boys State” begins streaming Aug. 14 on Apple TV+.