“Boys State,” a new documentary hitting Apple+ later this month, seeks to show Americans that unity between opposing parties is possible, even ahead of a particularly contentious election season.
“We as filmmakers were struggling to understand that political division and polarization in our country which just seems to get worse every year,” filmmaker Jesse Moss told The Christian Post. “We really wanted to make a film looking at our common ground; can we find a center in American political life?”
About two years ago, Moss, along with fellow filmmaker Amanda McBaine, found the subject for their next documentary: The Texas American Legion Boys State, the annual American Legion-sponsored leadership conference attended by more than 1,000 teens at the Texas State Capitol.
At Boys State, teens learn about American democracy by organizing political parties and running a mock government for seven days. Founded by the American Legion in 1935, Boys State operates in nearly every U.S. state and bills itself as “among the most respected and selective educational programs of government instruction for U.S. high school students.”
In 2017, the program made headlines after the mock legislature voted for Texas to secede from the United States — a controversial move that caught the attention of Moss and McBaine.
“We read the story about the 2017 Texas Boys State legislature voting to secede from the U.S., and we thought, ‘What a great prism to look at politics and gridlock and polarization today,’” Moss recalled.
“What's interesting about the program is that you have boys from across Texas with different politics getting together in a room to talk to each other,” he continued. “It seems like it doesn't happen in many spaces in America so we leaped at the opportunity to take our camera into that space.”
At Boys State, over 1,000 teens are divided into rival parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists. The opposing parties attempt to build a mock government, electing every position from attorney general to state party chairman. The event culminates in the election of one student as governor.
Filmed during the 2018 Texas Boys State session, Boys State follows four “statesmen” throughout the week: Steven Garza, Robert MacDougal, Ben Feinstein, and Rene Otero. With opposing political viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, and different social values, the filmmakers knew the four teens would make compelling subjects.
“I was so surprised by their level of political engagement,” McBaine told CP. “They were so sophisticated, not only in the campaigning but also in the emotion of it. I was deeply moved by the whole event. I was really surprised by how emotional it all was.”
Filmmakers document the talent shows, legislative sessions, signature-gathering, and campaigns held over the seven-day event. They follow the boys as they engage in a number of tactics and political maneuvers — sometimes dirty — to achieve their goals.
“I thought, ‘OK, this is just going to be 'Lord of the Flies.’ And then, moving through the week, it got more and more serious and there were people rising to the top and gathering horses behind them in ways that were full of integrity and meaning and heart, and that just blew my mind,” McBaine said.
By the time the Boys State attendees choose their “governor,” viewers are emotionally invested in the characters, their growth, and their individual political schemes. It’s no surprise Boys State programs around the nation have produced a number of leaders in various fields including Neil Armstrong, Tom Brokaw, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh.
These boys, the documentary suggests, are a foreshadowing of tomorrow’s politicians.
“Young people in America have realized that adults are not going to fix their problems, but they're going to fix those problems for themselves,” Moss said. “We see around the world that teens at 17 are leading political movements that are changing the world, whether it’s about climate change or gun violence. They’re being proactive about the things that really matter in our lives. I think this film shows us that you have to throw yourself into the process to make democracy healthier. Teens have moral leadership and are ready to step up to that responsibility.
The film, coming to Apple TV+ on Aug. 14, won the Grand Jury Prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Moss told CP he believes 'Boys State' has resonated with so many because the events of the film reflect current events — and gives viewers an inside look at the complicated world of American politics.
“The film is hopeful,” he said. “There's some tough stuff in the movie and some crazy energy, but that's in America too. People are connecting with the entertainment of the movie because it's funny. It makes you laugh; it makes you cry, but it also talks about something that's very important to all of us. Wherever you come from in America, whatever your politics are, you care about the health of our democracy and that's what this film is about.”
Though entertaining, Moss and McBaine said their goal is to give Americans hope at a particularly divided time. More importantly, they hope their film inspires viewers of all ages to thoughtfully engage with the social and political issues surrounding them.
“We made a film looking at our common ground; can we find a center in American political life? I think the film provides a way to think about these questions,” Moss said. “It shows us that democracy is something you have to throw yourself into. You can't just be on the sidelines. I think that's an empowering message.”