Rene Otero and Ben Feinstein facing face to face in Boys State

What happens when you let a thousand teenaged boys run a government? In A24’s Boys State, it’s absolute chaos, and it’s painfully reminiscent of the real-life electoral system. Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine’s Sundance Award-winning documentary is set at 2018’s Texas Boys State, a week-long summer camp where high school boys are divided into two mock political parties to build a representative government from the ground up. The boys’ battle for power is the subject of a compelling examination of the state of American democracy. Boys State is equal parts terrifying and inspiring, mirroring today’s polarized political climate.

The Texan heat and the smell of testosterone permeate the film from its opening, as the boys arrive and are randomly assigned to either the Federalist or Nationalist party. The parties must meet as a state legislature to pass bills, but more importantly and certainly more dramatically, they must elect leaders. The film focuses on several standout candidates vying for the roles of state party chairman and governor. The rivalry between the two parties escalates, manifesting in personal attacks and smear campaigns, political intrigue and baseless accusations. The film is entertaining throughout its runtime, balancing high-stakes theatrics reminiscent of reality TV with the suspense of thriller films, while borrowing a tinge of self-awareness from political satire.

The tension of the race fully engrosses audiences, as cinematographer Thorsten Thielow translates every beat of triumph and defeat onto screen with immersive tracking shots during crucial speeches and close-ups of anxious fidgeting and uncertain glances. The filmmakers also capture moments of vulnerability with profound empathy. We learn the participants’ backstories and watch them surmount personal challenges over the course of the week. The film maintains that the boys, whether or not we agree with their politics, are just young people whose beliefs are a product of their upbringing.

A photo of Steven Garza in Boys State
Steven Garza in Boys State /A24

Alongside the campaign story, the film tells the tale of the boys’ political coming of age as they learn the harsh – and sometimes absurd – realities of the system. Steven Garza, campaigning for the Nationalist party’s gubernatorial nomination, is a Bernie supporter and son of Mexican immigrants who wins supporters from both sides of the aisle by preaching bipartisan unity. However, the opposition twists his advocacy for gun control into a question of his patriotism, revealing just how easily hatred is bred in a two-party system.

Steven’s competitor for the nomination is Robert MacDougall, a personable West Point hopeful with a different strategy: lying. He delivers a searing pre-rehearsed speech against abortion, but behind the scenes, he remarks: “I’m pro-choice.” He explains himself, “I’m playing this like a game. My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all, so I chose to pick a new stance. That’s politics, I think.” Robert compromising his values for the vote is, subject to the viewer’s perspective, either an act of political savviness or one of moral corruption.

René Otero, a Chicago transplant who claims he’s “never seen so many white people, ever” wins the popular vote for chairman of the Nationalists with a stirring speech citing his experience in activism. His resilience is then tested by an unwarranted impeachment movement that exemplifies the arbitrary battles that arise out of political hierarchy. The movement is endorsed by Federalist chairman Ben Feinstein, a Reagan-loving bilateral amputee who is unabashedly willing to play dirty: “In politics, you play to win.” He exploits intelligence from the Nationalists and makes several public jabs at René. Reflecting on their rivalry, René says about Ben: “I think he’s a fantastic politician, but I don’t think a fantastic politician is a compliment.”

A photo of Rene Otero sitting, listening to the debate in Boys State
Rene Otero in Boys State /A24

Moss and McBaine’s choice to focus on four main characters makes the film somewhat parochial, given the variety of personalities and opinions present at the event. One of the most fascinating scenes of the film is a 20-second montage of Steven conversing with potential voters. One participant recalls a shooting that occurred at his high school, while another credits concealed carry for wounding the perpetrator of a life-threatening shootout. The conversation feels almost like an afterthought as it is mostly covered by Steven’s narration, but this scene reveals more about the current political landscape than most of the film’s explicit messaging. The film would have been a more complete portrait of modern American youth had the filmmakers expanded their scope of focus, but nuance and subtlety are sidelined in favor of a conventional – albeit entertaining – dramatic arc.

Nevertheless, the film is thought-provoking within its limited runtime. The boys realize that politics is a game of compromise, but the question is, how much are they willing to sacrifice? How many concessions before real change is made? Boys State poses questions that are particularly pertinent to this election year, where many voters feel that they must settle for stability as progress is not on the ballot.

Three boys listening to and participating in the debate in Boys State
Boys State /A24

The film depicts everything wrong with the electoral system, so it’s easy to walk away feeling hopeless about the future of America. For many candidates at Boys State, the goal is not change but power. They compromise their beliefs for the sake of dominance and naturally tend towards attacking the opposition for their own gain. As Robert puts it, Boys State is a “dick-measuring contest”, but its toxicity is simply a reflection of the larger state and federal systems. The film urges viewers to ask themselves, how did we end up here? How did we create a system that bred these values?

Yet, Boys State disputes the cynics with a reminder that there is still hope. Steven’s sincerity and René’s perseverance are rooted in a desire to create meaningful change and unite people across political aisles. It follows the political coming of age of a generation that could change the course of the nation. By pointing out the failures and absurdities of a polarized America, the filmmakers challenge viewers to do better. Boys State is a truly compelling and timely documentary that will leave viewers both fearful and hopeful about the future of governance.

Jasmine Li is a photographer and filmmaker who spent her formative years in Hong Kong. She is currently studying Journalism and Sociology at Boston University. Some of her favorite films include Yi Yi, Children of Men, and Sing Street. You can find her on Instagram and Letterboxd @jvsli.