The new documentary Boys State opens with a quote from George Washington that warns of the damaging impact of parties in American politics. Political parties, he said "are likely…to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."
It's an appropriate start to a film that uses the week-long civics camp for high-achieving Texas teenagers as a way to interrogate our national political climate.
"In the summer in 2017, we read that the boys in Texas had voted to secede from the union," explains filmmaker Jesse Moss, who co-directed the film with his wife Amanda McBaine. "That provocative act got some attention. It got our attention."
Boys State, a program run by the American Legion since 1935, places teens into two imagined political parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists. During the session, teens must create party platforms and nominate leaders. The culmination of the week—and the focus of the film—is the election of governor.
While the strict two-party structure of Boys State helps create some order, it also manages to highlight the flaws of a binary political system. "This is a question that we've wrestled with," says Moss. "Does the party structure—Federalists versus Nationalists—kind of immediately introduce a sort of tribal competition. You see this literally, like chest beating. 'Beat the Federalists.' 'Beat the Nationalists.' Well, they don't stand for anything yet! What are you actually beating?"
"It's a mirror reflection of what actually happens in our country. There are two parties that rule the school," says McBaine. "The question here is can those two parties, in their tribal state, have civil discourse?"
The film won a Grand Jury prize at Sundance and was quickly snapped up by A24 and Apple for an unprecedented $12 million. It is now streaming on Apple TV Plus.
"Regardless of where you come from on the political spectrum, I think you're going to find an entry point in this film," says Moss. "It's, I think, a complicated story and we have very diverse, complicated characters. I think in documentaries, we sometimes hunger for a kind of certain binary truth. And we all know that's really not reality."
Produced and edited by Meredith Bragg.
Boys State footage courtesy of A24 and Apple.