A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.A thousand 17-year-old boys from Texas join together to build a representative government from the ground up.
The documentary is a political coming of age set in "Boys State", Texas. For the uninitiated, that's a participatory program for teenage, male students where everyone has the opportunity to become a part of the operation of his local, county, and state government. The program, which is run by American Legion Boys State, exposes participants to the rights and privileges, the duties and the responsibilities, of a franchised citizen.
The training is objective and practical, with city, county, and state governments operated by the students elected to the various offices. The documentary focuses on a number of the boys as they sought political office.
Because of seemingly unlimited access, the documentary was amply able to shine a light on both the burnished, sunny side and the seething, avaricious side of America and to put both on display for the world to see!
The bright side of America breathes life into opportunity. Bringing kids to a camp and honing their public speaking skills and political debating skills is just amazing. And to do it in a manner that brings kids like Steven, who came from a disadvantaged background, is a genuinely beautiful thing.
But then you have the dark side of America which bubbles to the surface as extreme privilege and an entitled attitude which is just horrible. Unfortunately it isn't restricted to adult politicians and, even in a documentary about kids, that entitlement reduced politics to a binary "us against them" process.
Because Boys State is among the most respected and selective educational programs of government instruction for high school students, it's expressly meant to reflect real life. As such, the binary "us against them" process wasn't helped by the adults splitting the kids into two parties and having primaries. I know that happens in the US but it doesn't happen in any other democratic country in the world. It seemed such a missed opportunity to me. Couldn't all those wonderfully brilliant kids have been tasked with finding a solution rather than just mirroring the broken reality?
That being said, the purpose of the documentary wasn't to uncover solutions, rather it was to just let the process speak for itself. And that it most certainly did.
The film reflected one of the great unspoken facts of American life - everyone basically agrees about everything here. Or, at least, all the things that matter. Everyone here is, for the most part, a nationalist. And everyone here is, for the most part, a capitalist.
To use an analogy: there are a handful of different types of drinks: alcohol, water, soda, fruit juice etc. Within those categories there are subcategories. Soda contains cola, soda waters, lemon and lime flavored drinks etc. And those subcategories can be broken down into specific brands, Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and RC Cola, for example, in the Cola subcategory.
While other countries have genuine debates about the advantages of water over wine or vice versa. In the US, everyone has seemingly agreed that Cola is the only drink worth having! Americans argue vehemently about whether Pepsi or Coke is better, and all the various different other drinks and, in fact, even all the various different other colas are relegated to an irrelevance before the debate even begins!
It's a two party system here and everything outside the tent, i.e. the vast majority of an entire beautiful spectrum of possibility, is simply resigned to the dustbin!
And, because of that, what happens in real life, also happened in the movie. The young politicians eschewed positions in favor of slogans! Real debate didn't happen. Because there wasn't really a difference. There was nothing to debate. Cola is cola. And whether Pepsi is better than Coke or vice versa is really only a matter of personal choice.
Instead, US politicians - in real life as in the film - weaponized slogans and attacked perceived personality flaws in their opponents. Both sides were guilty of that, most obviously in Rene and Ben. Especially Ben! I found myself wondering, "WTF is wrong with that kid? Regan dolls and an insane lust for power?!" But both were at fault. Each only cared about winning in the narrowest, most binary sense possible.
Rene had a great line about Ben at the end, "I don't hate the man. Never will. I think he's a fantastic politician. But I don't think 'fantastic politician' is a complement either."
That was a caustic summation! And entirely accurate. I loved it! And yet Rene was equally willing to use every dirty trick in the book to get ahead. And stay ahead. And he was king of ad hominem attack - as evidenced by that wonderfully cutting final remark. I think that kid'll go far in American politics. But I don't think that's a complement either!
Anyway! The film just about blew my mind! Great documentary! Outstanding film! But, my oh my, I hope none of those kids (except Steven) end up running the country!
- Jan 1, 2021