Boys State (Moss, 2020)

“And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me / He’d grown up just like me / My boy was just like me.” — “Cats in the Cradle,” Harry Chapin

I’ve spent the better part of the four weeks since I previewed Boys State trying to disentangle my feelings about the documentary from my feelings about its participants. Perhaps that wouldn’t be as difficult if the seriousness of the subject matter weren’t so strikingly juxtaposed by the immaturity of some of the participants.

I suspect that Boys State, the story of a thousand teenage boys participating in a state-wide convention designed to help them see how political parties work, will be pushed as (and perhaps received as) a feel good documentary. Children are our future, and there are a handful of principled and articulate ones on display here that may well lead the way. The cynic in me, however, suggests that what they will really do is what principled and articulate people usually do in Texas (and in most American political landscapes): lose to sophomoric, entitled power brokers who are more interested in bettering themselves than in public service.

The opening credits provide a laundry list of influential figures from American politics who attended Boys State and presumably had their skills and convictions formed in the crucible of mock governance. The arguments about whether politics requires compromise will probably never end. What is discouraging here is not that just that so many participants treat this much-sought after opportunity as a joke (hey, let’s vote to secede from the United States!), it is how painfully self-aware and unapologetic they are about going against their own convictions simply to win. “My views on abortion wouldn’t line up with the boys out there,” says one teen running for faux-office, so I chose to change my stance.” As is the case with so much real-world American politics, the rightness or wrongness of one’s particular stance on an issue — gun control, racism, parliamentary procedure — is taken as a given or treated as immaterial. What is important is to say nothing of substance so that one can turn with the tide and not have a record of actual conviction that can be used against one.

One could argue, I guess, that the boys are smart enough and cynical enough to realize that the faux government has no actual consequences beyond resume stuffing, so why not treat what one does in it as inconsequential? When I was on an athletic club in college, we had a saying: “As you practice, so shall you play.” The belief that one can simply turn a mental switch off and on when stakes change is, in my experience, an illusion. To the extent that Boys State, like any educational experience, is “practice,” the consequences of how one approaches it are that one forms the habits and experiences that are the foundation for future actions. One of the biggest consequences is that it will make it easier or harder, depending on how one approaches mock government, to make the same such compromises when faced with impactful “real world” decisions.

Most of those observations are about the participants, not the filmmakers, so I should add that I am conflicted about the use of young people in documentaries. Teens are old enough to consent, I guess, and a lot of great documentaries have been made over the years simply by affording the subjects the opportunity to reveal who they are. Is it the fault of the documentarian if that reveal isn’t always pretty? Shrug. Probably not. But I wonder if some of these boys will look back one day on their participation in the convention and film and cringe. We all say and do a lot of stupid things before we grow up. Most of us are fortunate not to have a camera around to record our worst moments for posterity.

Boys State premieres on Apple+ TV on July 31, 2020.

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