Boy's State

BOYS STATE. US, 2020. Directed by Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss. 109 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language)

This is a very American documentary. It offers insights into the world of American politics, so different from that of many other countries. Audiences from these countries will be surprised, and sometimes alarmed. However, given the state of American politics in the American presidency during the years when this film was made, the first term of President Trump, non-American audiences will be given plenty to reflect on.

Boys State is an American institution, established by the American Legion in 1935. During the opening credits there are indications as to some prominent personalities who participated in the boys State exercise: Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, Rush Limbaugh.

This annual event in many of the states of the union takes place over a week. This film’s focus is on the event for boys, generally age 17, and for this film in the state of Texas.

Gradually, the audience begins to understand what is in play. And, serious play it is. The boys are interviewed by members of the American Legion and approved for participation and scholarship. They assemble, a thousand of them, in uniform dress, in dormitories and with large dining room, meeting rooms. The boys are immediately divided into two groups, the Nationalist Party, the Federalist Party.

Over the week, they are to go through various processes that parallel the party assemblies, nominations and campaigns, elections, in state politics.

Several boys are singled out by name early in the film so that the audience has a particular focus. They form an interesting cross-section of young Americans. It is a surprise to find that Ben, has had two leg amputations because of meningitis as well as having an injured arm. But, he has a strong presence and determination, very few holds barred, not any way impeded by his disability except in a walking limp, with his eye on the governorship in the final election but finding his place as Party Manager, recruiting, campaigning, chairing meetings, strong on input and motivation.

We are also introduced to Steven Garza, Mexican background, short, swarthy, participating in demonstrations about guns, very determined, quieter in his approach, also aiming for governor, energetic in his campaigning and making friends.

The other two principal boys are quite a contrast, René, African-American, self-conscious, but self-confident, intense speech campaigning for Party Manager, winning, but falling foul of some dissidents who want to impeach him. By contrast there is Robert, may be seen as a typical Texan, easy-going, not particularly sensitive to others’ feelings or holding on to issues, intent on being accepted to West Point.

For audiences who find this Boy’s State week unusual, it is sometimes difficult to keep pace with what is happening, campaigns, speeches, voting, selection of candidates – and the number of convention equivalents to hear the ideas of the candidates for governor. However, every so often, there are more personal interviews with the forenamed boys, their emotional reactions to what has happened to them, their political and philosophical reflections. For so many, the motivation is: win at all cost, truth is not always relevant. René says at the end that one boy would make an excellent politician – but that was not a compliment.

Of interest to American audiences and to non-American audiences is the selection of political issues that the boys want to debate. While they are vociferously patriotic, songs, music, brass band as boosters, one of the key issues is gun-control, the Second Amendment, an emphasis on bearing arms and defending oneself that seems alien to many non-Americans. There are also some enthusiastic anti-abortion stances, one or another of the boys quietly mentioning that he was pro-choice, an allusion to LGBTQ issues only, passing mentions of education.

The film serves as a record of the thinking of young men in America of this period, a snapshot – and interesting to reflect on 10 years earlier and the election of President Obama. And, our wondering what the equivalent will be like for the 2028 American election.

A24 films                          Screening at MIFF online

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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