The cinematic landscape is full of boys.
We've had bad boys, lost boys, wonder boys, hell boys, boyz in the hood, a boy in a plastic bubble, and so many more. Now we have Boys State: a movie about an imaginary state full of real boys. What? Well…
What the f–ck is Boys State?
Boys State is a documentary about Boys State, a weeklong camp where hundreds of teenage boys form a mock two-party government. The camp happens in every American state except Hawaii. You may not have heard of it, but alums include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker, Michael Jordan, Neil Armstrong, Samuel Alito, Roger Ebert, and—from New Jersey, the Hollywood of Boys States—Jon Bon Jovi and James Gandolfini. This particular documentary unfolds at the Texas 2018 edition of the camp, in Austin.
Wait, just boys? Sexist!
There is a separate program for girls that does the same thing.
And this is a government program, or…?
No no no. Since 1935 Boys State has been hosted by the American Legion, a vague-sounding but legitimate nonprofit nonpartisan organization. The Legion is focused on service to veterans and communities and they advocate for stuff such as: patriotism, national security, education, sportsmanship, volunteering, and fostering a sense of civic obligation and participation. E pluribus unum!
Can anyone attend Boys State or Girls State?
No. A teenager must undergo an arduous application process that varies from state to state. In some locations, representatives from the Legion nominate boys (or girls) to attend the program. In others, an application must be submitted with all the usual data: GPA, extracurricular activities, volunteering experience, and, most important, a short essay in response to the question: If you were governor of __________ for one day, how would you improve your state?
All manner of “funny business” is not allowed. Instead, it’s all politics, baby.
And then they get to camp and, what, roast s’mores and paddle canoes?
No. In the words of one journalist writing in 2005, “The event brings together the brightest, most talented young men in the state and throws them into an unrelenting seven-day sausage grinder of politics and participatory democracy.”
All manner of “funny business” (i.e. drugs, smoking, gambling, firecrackers) is not allowed. Instead, it’s all politics, baby: The boys learn to build consensus and compromise. They give rousing speeches, collect signatures, and march in the streets. They workshop campaign slogans. They hold conventions and primaries. They threaten to impeach each other. They experiment with propaganda. They chant “USA! USA!” They eat green beans in a cafeteria and play Bruce Springsteen from tinny laptop speakers. Above all, they face tough decisions about whether to stick to their principles or lie to get votes.
The campers do, however, wear lanyards.
And this fake government—what does it look like?
It is a miniature version of state politics. Upon arrival the boys are randomly assigned to competing parties: the Federalists and the Nationalists. Each party forms a platform, elects its leadership, and competes for one of its nominees to win the office of governor.
Is it all work and no play, or do these hardworking, politically-minded youngsters have any fun?
In the documentary someone tries to pass a motion to ban the topping of pizza with pineapple, but it is unsuccessful.
How long does it take before everything devolves into Lord of the Flies?
Within 48 hours the assembled youths have splintered into competing factions, raided each other’s supplies, and perpetrated violent attacks. At week’s end the camp has burned to the ground.
Just kidding. What follows is an intense week of education about state government! Unfortunately, like real governments, this one is frequently scandal-ridden. The program has been criticized for jingoistic leanings and homophobia. Every few years there seems to be an incident that brings shame upon the larger Boys State project; for example, one of the teens at Kansas Boys State in 2014 “jokingly” tried to eliminate the 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote. Some of the participants in Texas 2018 are certainly buttheads, even sinister buttheads, and racism rears its ugly head at more than one point. Our American tapestry contains beautiful and hideous threads.
Like real governments, [Boys State] is frequently scandal-ridden.
Speaking of varied fabric, do the camps differ from state to state?
Each Boys State chapter carries a unique regional flavor. Vermont campers enjoy vigorous Ultimate Frisbee sessions. Virginia Boys State has a bowling facility. Missouri campers are specifically urged to bring deodorant.
How, uh, diverse is Boys State?
In the words of one of the few Black participants featured in the documentary: “I’ve never seen so many white people. Ever.” Which is an accurate assessment. But look a little closer and you’ll find a (slightly) more representative sample of Texas at large. There’s René Otero, the Chicago transplant who uttered that very quote. There’s Ben Feinstein, a Jewish Reagan superfan with two prosthetic legs. There’s Steven Garza, the son of a formerly undocumented immigrant. He’s a soft-spoken dark horse with big dreams...
Tell me more about Steven.
Steven runs for Governor of Boys State and embodies precisely the opposite of what you might think would ignite the political passions of a thousand hormonal teenage boys. He is thoughtful, introspective, doe-eyed. He is the first of his family to get past freshman year of high school. He led a March for Our Lives rally and defends it stridently in the face of a gun-happy audience.
Steven can’t possibly win the position of governor, the ultimate prize of Boys State… can he?
Are there any adults in this film?
Is there a “winner” at the end of camp?
Everyone's a winner at Boys State! However, two boys from each session win slightly more than everyone else: These are the two boys selected to further represent their state at Boys Nation, which convenes in our nation’s capital and replicates Boys State but with a focus on the machinery of federal instead of state government. The lucky attendees of Boys Nation form a mock Senate and nominate a president.
Has a Boys Nation president ever become elected to the office of (actual) president?
Not yet, but a former Boys Nation President named Aravind "Vinny" Byju became a Jeopardy Champion this year!