Kernel Rating: 3.5 out of 5
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 110 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 13+. This documentary follows a group of high school students enrolled in the weeklong Boys State program, which is meant to teach teenagers about the election process and the political party system. The teenagers sometimes curse, insult each other, and use racially coded language, memes, and insults. The documentary is set in Texas, and there recurring arguments throughout about gun rights and abortion; a teenager shows off his gun in his home; and another teenager is mocked for leading a March For Our Lives protest.
By Roxana Hadadi
With Election Day arriving in a few months, the documentary “Boys State” is essential viewing. A glimpse into how our current political landscape is affecting Generation Z, and how those teens’ perspectives are being shaped in real time, the documentary is urgent and enlightening. Although missing some helpful context about the program the documentary is featuring, its glimpse at what teenagers believe about the political process and how they re-enact it for themselves is immensely watchable and consistently thought-provoking.
“Boys State” follows the same-named program, which is organized and held by the American Legion all over the country. Each state’s American Legion puts out a call for high school students to apply for the program; those teens are then interviewed, and when they are accepted, converge on a college campus. Boys and girls are separated into Boys State and Girls State, respectively, and the documentary “Boys State” specifically focuses on the 1,200 participants in the titular program in Texas.
“Boys State” skips over some of the relevant details of the program: No one from the American Legion is interviewed about their process or what they’re looking for in applicants, or whether questions and criteria vary state by state. Some of that context would have been helpful to better understand the purpose of Boys State and Girls State, and whether those goals have changed over time. Without it, the documentary functions primarily as a portrait of the students involved, and the specific participants the documentary chooses to follow. The rivalries and competition between those participants becomes the story of “Boys State,” which is engrossing viewing but sometimes feels separated from whatever the American Legion organizers might have originally intended.
Because this is set in Texas, the majority of participants in “Boys State” skew conservative, and are loud and proud about their support for gun control, their opposition to abortion, and their alignment with the political perspectives of the likes of Ben Shapiro and Ronald Reagan. Robert, who shows off his gun and shares that he is only applying to West Point for college; it’s a family legacy, and he doesn’t seem to have any other option. Ben, whose legs were amputated after he was sick with meningitis at 3 years old and who says that he doesn’t believe any aspect of a person’s identity—disability, sexuality, gender, or race—should be considered; he only sees people, he says, as Americans. On the other side of the aisle are Steven, who is inspired by Bernie Sanders, has done door-knocking for the Democratic Party, and knows he’s wading into a heavily conservative crowd. Steven tries to be prepared for that fish-out-of-water feeling, as does René, who moved from Chicago to Texas and who speaks about his intention to use Boys State as a way of improving how he works with people on the other side of the political aisle. He understands that his viewpoints are not popular in Texas, but he doesn’t want to give up—he wants to figure out a way to be successful even as the minority ideologically.
What happens during “Boys State,” though, highlights the extreme highs and extreme lows of the political process, both of which are experienced by Steven. Boys State gives participants the opportunity to run for elected positions, and as Steven runs for governor and René secures the chairman position for his party, they both experience smear campaigns, ridicule and rudeness, and an upward battle to defend their perspectives. Meanwhile, we see Ben engineer those smear campaigns and defend his win-at-all-costs mentality, and Robert using his popular-guy image to secure votes for a position he thinks he deserves, but might not really want.
The contrasting personalities at play here show the appeal politics has to a broad array of individuals, and the way these participants organize in solidarity and engage in competition will spawn a number of post-film discussions. Do teen viewers sympathize with one participant or another? What do they think of the bills the boys end up voting for in their mimicry of state government? What positions would they insist be included in their party platform? What do they think of how the participants handled interparty conflict? “Boys State” is ripe with content to discuss with young viewers after the documentary wraps, and the ending in particular balances deep discomfort with some glimmers of hope. That balance will be worth discussing with young viewers, too.
“Boys State” is playing in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.