Boys State is a timely and terrifying political documentary [Apple TV+ review]

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Ben Feinstein appears in the terrifying Apple TV+ documentary Boys State
Ben Feinstein appears in the terrifying Apple TV+ documentary Boys State.
Photo: Apple TV+

If you looked at the crowds of white nationalists bearing tiki torches at the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and wondered what took them from innocent children to gimlet-eyed monsters of borrowed ideology, Boys State is a harrowing but necessary research tool.

The new Apple TV+ documentary by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss delivers a frightening look at a time-honored tradition that appears to have actively made the world a worse place.

Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner Boys State, which premieres Friday on Apple TV+, may nauseate you. But you’ll be glad you saw it, if only because it’s a shocking and sobering reminder that the next generation of conservatives is ready to step in and replace the one about to die — and they’re no less efficacious.

Boys State review

Boys State and Girls State is a leadership program organized by the American Legion that’s designed to teach young people about the U.S. political process. McBaine and Moss set the stage perfectly for the slow-motion car crash of would-be punditry and backstabbing machinations by quickly showing the famous Boys State alums who preceded their film’s cast of characters.

These young men are stepping into the shoes of Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, to say nothing of the not-mentioned likes of Mike Huckabee, Trent Lott and Scott Bakula. (In fairness, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Ebert and Michael Jordan also took part in the program over the years, but I digress.)

Boys State: An American tradition

René Otero, right, is one of the participants in Boys State.
René Otero, right, is one of the participants in the annual Boys State program.
Photo: Apple TV+

Boys State is supposed to prep young minds for careers as community and civic leaders. However, as with every other American tradition, it’s become obsolete for a hundred reasons.

The most immediately apparent reason why something like Boys State isn’t useful is that whatever rules the U.S. government used to pretend to live by have been bashed in the head and buried twitching by the current president. All the secret bigotry, slavery and murder the United States used to hide from the American public when more-efficient administrations were in office is now way out in the open. The lie of statecraft is more apparent than ever.

The Texas high-schoolers shown in Boys State know that politics is a sloganeering shouting match now. And it is full-on skin-crawling hearing them talk about President Donald Trump and conservative pundit Ben Shapiro as models of effective politicking. No one should know Shapiro, let alone talk about him like some kind of model for political debate. As René Otero, one of the few kids in the doc who comes off as a human being, says of one of his peers: “‘Great politician’ is not a compliment.”

Now, teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules

Robert MacDougall makes a point during the documentary.
Robert MacDougall makes a point during the documentary.
Photo: Apple TV+

The white kids in the doc (and there are hundreds of them) have a horrifying, antagonistic homogeneity. They scream and connive and seem to be training to become presidents of their frat. (Unfortunately, these days that is not much different from running for president of the United States. Both goals require aspirations to the same level of decorum, after all.)

There’s something deeply sickening about watching kids barely old enough to drive scream about gun control and abortion and “backing the blue.” If these kids — raised on a steady diet of Limbaugh-style conservative talk radio, and having so internalized the political issues facing the country that they treat them like players in a fantasy football league — are about to enter into politics, we’d better pray Girls State is filled with nothing but future Ilhan Omars and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes.

It’s not simply that the spread of beliefs represented in Boys State skews to the right (though that’s not great). It’s that at no point is a single political issue given a human face or stakes beyond a debate stage.

Watching young boys talk about abortion like it’s a bargaining chip is a symptom of a deeply diseased social landscape. It’s just a talking point to them, like campaign finance reform or money for highways. You should be nervous that this is how kids are being educated to think about body autonomy.

One ray of hope

Steven Garza is the only sane guy in Apple TV+ documentary Boys State.
Steven Garza is the only sane guy in Boys State.
Photo: Apple TV+

If there’s anything positive in Boys State, it’s in the face of one Steven Garza, who, like Otero, seems to be a genuine human being who doesn’t view “politics” as a sport. Garza becomes a favorite during the event, gaining votes to become governor, which is Boys State’s version of a pageant winner. Garza seems to understand the human cost of political ideas (and the fact that he’s surrounded by aggro white boys who don’t seems to drive it home for him even more). He quickly becomes a cause célèbre among the other boys.

He’s the only kid in the documentary who doesn’t second-guess his emotional responses to things, and who brings out the same unguarded behavior in his peers. You root for him, and for kids like him, to become invested in the political future of the country. It’s clear, even though he’s good at slick speechifying, that he also understands issues vis-à-vis who they effect.

An unnerving documentary

The documentary that Boys State most reminded me of is Rodney Ascher’s Room 237. That film spells out a bunch of people’s cockeyed theories about the hidden meanings of 1980 movie The Shining using footage from Stanley Kubrick’s classic for illustration.

The two documentaries don’t have anything grammatically in common. However, both seem open to increased scrutiny of the things they show. Neither Ascher nor McBaine and Moss endorse the absurd politics of their movies’ subjects. Nor do they make it especially easy to weather their logic.

Spending time in Boys State is a lot to handle, especially because it’s precisely the inhuman policies these kids scream about for so long that landed us all indoors having a collective mental breakdown. However, we have to know what the next generation of Republicans looks and acts like. There has to be an equally passionate opposition, because looking into the eyes of these boys is a genuinely unnerving experience.

Rated: PG-13

Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.