Having likely been forced to read Lord of the Flies by your secondary school teacher, the idea of adolescent boys governing themselves is probably a frightful one – one that evokes haunting images of frenzied dances and the ritualistic hunting of pigs… Anyway, it may be time to rid yourself of this idea, and restore a little bit of faith in our pimpled and pubescent youth.
The new Apple TV documentary film, Boys State, explores the baffling world of the annual political club organised and sponsored by the American Legion, in which young boys get to play at running for government. Those partaking in the club get separated into invented political parties, the nationalists and federalists – not hard to work out which way each side leans – then students put themselves forward to run for governor before going through what would be a primary, and then general election. I imagine you’re sat raising your eyebrows and pursing your lips questioning why it is any teenage boy would want to spend their time doing this, and I can understand why. However, the project has some pretty famous alumni – Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Cory Booker and Sam Alito all attended in their youth.
The film focuses on a handful of boys who have varying political stances. You’ve got Steven Garza, a devoted Bernie Sanders fan, Robert MacDougall, who hides his pro-choice stance to gain more votes, and the sharp-witted René Otero. And it’s these big characters that make the show so much fun. Before you know it, you’re almost as invested in these fake politics as you are in the real ones, and you’ll be sat there empathising with their pre-election nerves. Of course, you’re unlikely to agree with everything said, and some of the boys’ outlooks may make you wince, but then, isn’t that how we react to real life politics?
Earlier this year, the film won the U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival, and reviews of the show have been overwhelmingly positive. In The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw says the show is ‘an amazing spectacle,’ where ‘the gloves and training wheels come off.’ The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis calls it a ‘happy pill of a documentary,’ and said ‘it’s easy to be charmed by Boys State, which is so good that you wish it were better.’ Whilst the joyful side of the film is definitely welcome, we can see where The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane is coming from when he says, ‘Boys State will leave you alternately cheered and alarmed at the shape of things to come.’
Does the documentary leave us hoping for a brighter future, or worried for more of what we’ve already got? It’s up for debate.
First shown August 2020. You can watch the trailer by pressing play on the show image, or by clicking here.