Film review: ‘Boys State’ mirrors the political climate of Texas

It’s not a perfect tale, but it shows the ins and outs of a fictional government


High schools offer all sorts of honors for kids who conform to certain norms. There’s the high school quarterback and the assorted minions. There’s the basketball stud. There are all sorts of jocks. They rule.

Then there’s the nerdy drum major. There’s the editor of the school newspaper as well as the editor of the annual. There are many more. And some of those conforming folks aren’t really conforming.

And then there’s Boys State, the late-in-life high school honor bestowed upon high school dudes by the American Legion. That’s the subject of a new documentary, “Boys State,” which tracks the 2018 odyssey of a bunch of young Texas men who were selected to attend the yearly convention in Austin and take part in a two-party system to elect various offices.

These are kids who interviewed with their local American Legion folks. These are young men who were asked about their beliefs in God and country. If you say Jesus is your hero, you have chosen wisely. Other heroes are okay, too, as long as you have a good reason. Ronald Reagan would probably be a good reason in this world, just fyi. And yes, nearly every political aspirant knows that they need to condemn abortion, even if they don’t care, just because they need the votes.

This is not a crowd that admires complex thinking. But a few Boys State attendees stand out for their independence. And that’s where “Boys State” shines. The documentary won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — before the pandemic — and it’s a great look at the variety of 1,000 young men who come to Austin each year to build their own version of a state government.

If you live in Texas, you know this can be a nightmare. And that’s certainly in play in this new documentary, which focuses on two young men — Ben, a Reagan-loving double amputee, and Steven, a child of Mexican immigrants who tries to be a voice of moderation in what turns out to be a sea of conservatives.

Who would have guessed that a Mexican-American kid would have trouble at Boys State? Well, slap me silly. And yes, that’s what happens.

Filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine follow all of this with a steady eye, seeking out voices who support Steven, as well as voices that don’t. A lot of subtexts also arise, including notions about gay folks, which the documentary does not fully explore.

But the filmmakers deserve props for following Steven Garza in his uphill battle for legitimacy among the jocks and white folks.

I’m not sure whether I’m heartened by this film or disheartened. I do, however, appreciate the honesty of the documentary, “Boys State.”

“Boys State” is streaming on AppleTV+.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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