Boys State

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Boys State Movie Poster Image
Teens make like political pros in insightful documentary.
  • PG-13
  • 2020
  • 109 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Observing motivations and actions of boys followed in the documentary helps make tricks of national politics more transparent. Themes include communication, humility, integrity, teamwork.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Steven Garza is an excellent role model: He's honest, authentic, sincere, thoughtful, considerate, politically courageous by standing up for what and who he believes in, even if it's not going to be well-received. Though the bulk of the young men at Boys State are White, with similar belief systems, the film's high-achieving heroes do include Latino, Black, and Jewish boys, those with disabilities, of different socioeconomic status, etc.

Violence

Recollections and conversation/debate about school shootings. A character shows off his gun. Debate about both guns and abortion.

Sex
Language

Infrequent strong language includes "d--k," "hell,""pissed," and "s--t."

Consumerism

Apple products.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Boys State is an excellent documentary about Texas high school boys who meet for a week each year to create a mock government with a two-party system. Some of the 1,100 attendees think the whole event is a joke, while others see getting elected to office as a serious, and sometimes nasty, business. Although the event itself is pretty homogeneous over all, the four young gubernatorial candidates and party chairs whose stories the film follows represent a diverse mix of economic statuses, races, religions, abilities, and political viewpoints. They're also different in their approach to politics -- from authentic to "good ol' boy" to ruthless -- and hearing and seeing their motivations is enlightening. Much of the debate in the movie revolves around abortion and guns, with some teens sharing their empathy about nearby school shootings. Beyond politics, the film lays out what it's like to be a teen boy in Generation Z and presents a phenomenal role model in featured participant Steven Garza.

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What's the story?

Documenting the 2018 installment of the American Legion's annual week-long BOYS STATE convention in Austin, Texas, this film follows four 17-year-olds campaigning for political office as they form a mock state government with two parties (the Federalists and the Nationalists, in this case). As they ramp up the week -- starting with little to no political experience -- they quickly learn that winning the votes of their peers is much more than a popularity contest.

Is it any good?

Watching these teens vie for fake political power is a revelation about what's gone wrong in the modern U.S. government: It's like The War Room meets Model U.N. For starters, we see what the teens are picking up from their parents, the news, and their own political perusals. But while the American Legion's teen mock state legislature is fairly homogenous -- White, male, conservative ("I've never seen so many White people, ever," says René Otero, a Black attendee who wins the role of party chair with an intelligent speech but is quickly racially targeted for impeachment when he won't entertain the idea of Texas seceding from the union) -- filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine choose to follow subjects who are incredibly diverse on every level.

That said, since the film is all about politics, the core foursome includes two liberals and two conservatives. On the Republican side, there's athletic "guy's guy" Robert MacDougall, who campaigns on what's politically convenient: He's willing to win by supporting positions that he doesn't actually believe in. And charismatic Ben Feinstein is a die-hard politico whose "shock and awe" strategy would make Karl Rove proud and whose absent limbs don't negatively affect his ambition, success, or popularity. Realizing he's outnumbered, liberal Otero opts for political survival. And then there's Steven Garza, the heart and soul of Boys State. He's the hardworking, high-achieving kid of a single mother who was undocumented for a time, and he repeatedly demonstrates enviable political courage and integrity. Moss and McBaine never tell viewers what to think or what's right, but they let the events play out in a way that's shocking, fascinating, frightening, and hopeful. So while the elections and party of platforms of 2018's Texas Boys State have no power, the culminating events are powerful in their indication of what's going on in America. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what happens when politics get extremely polarized. How can people share different or opposing ideas without upsetting one another?

  • Which of the teens' approaches to campaigning did you think were the most effective? Who would you have voted for? Why?

  • What dirty tricks did you see in use? Do you think it's most important to win at any cost, so you can realize your agenda, or is it more important to stay true to your values?

  • Who did you think was a role model? Why? How do the teens featured in the movie demonstrate communication, humility, integrity, and teamwork?

  • Discuss the different ways the main subjects are diverse. Why is representation important in the media?

Movie details

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