It’s a lot easier to comprehend politics in a fascist police state. Growing up as a teenager in the Obama era felt like a waste of my prime adolescent enthusiasm: the entire goal of that administration was complacency and, baby, complacency they got out of me. Make no mistake, I would try to understand debate topics, but I was too young to realize that the answers were crafted to never actually assess them. It wasn’t until my 20s that I learned how purposefully confusing the political machine was, that politicians spitting straight gobbledygook was not a fault of my own lack of education, but an exploitation of it. Key to the Obama administration’s immaculate tenor as public-facing figures was never really knowing what the fuck they stood for. The evils of the American empire become a lot more comprehensible when the country elects a totalitarian dumbass dedicated to making every bit of the United States’ colonialist subtext text. There is zero reason to not engage with the burning world outside your front door when it’s as plainly stated as a Sesame Street segment, and the teenagers have taken note. Kyle Rittenhouse gunned down three protestors, killing two, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This is to say that I’m much less willing to cut a 17-year-old the same amount of slack as many Gen X film critics who’ve grown blindingly apologetic for the bigotry of their younger selves. “We were kids, we didn’t know any better!” Fast-forward to the era of data, where thousands of libraries’ worth of resources are available on Instagram alone. The kids not only know better, but they’re wired completely anew. Is it unfair to lay complete blame on the conservative failures of Generation Z on the kids themselves? A little, sure, obviously there are greater structures at play that, as they have for centuries, seek to shape social order. The question then becomes “Well, what are some of the institutions that shape these young minds?” Enter BOYS STATE.
The American Legion’s Boys State program feeds young, struggling idealists into a Ford factory line of freshly hatched snakes, like velociraptor breeding at Jurassic Park: a summer camp of pre-screened boys desperately seeking approval via strained recitations of values they’d once Googled and seen in a Politico article or overheard in a Joe Rogan interview, praying to God that they’ve consumed enough to recognize what their peers are regurgitating, too. The child participants are split into two opposing parties, Federalists and Nationalists, and left to establish their platforms in a shotgun-wedding fashion week of campaigning. These youth government programs are fully mask-off affairs; writing this on the week of the 2020 RNC only illuminates how many American traditions essentially hand out THEY LIVE sunglasses to the public like it’s a sponsored studio audience giveaway on ELLEN (RIP).
BOYS STATE’s primary subjects, all of whom except the scene-stealing René Otero were pre-selected before the event, are such expertly chosen main characters that it may elicit some doubt if this is an accurate depiction of reality, but no, directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss really did strike gold. Steven Garza, the documentary’s protagonist, seems like a laboratory-concocted Liberal wunderkind, but close to midway, he reveals the giant red flag that his political role model is Napoleon Bonaparte. His opponent, Rob MacDougall, betrays his own pro-choice beliefs to appeal to Boys State’s conservative base with the GOP’s oft-touted, chilling false virtue of stripping away women’s rights to an abortion so the country can farm unwanted fetuses into adoption clinics. It’s that same wink-wink “make Nazism out to be a practical act of pragmatism” as that pervasive deep-state proposal of sending kids with misdemeanor records to the military; luckily, he knows it’s an insane proposal. Unfortunately, it’s a more successful call-to-action than it should be. He’s a sweet, lunkheaded Texan boy right out of DAZED AND CONFUSED who, despite his nightmare tactics, acknowledges his lack of qualifications for Governor and resigns from the race in the name of party unity, immediately endorsing the, frankly, better and more juiced-up candidate. The Texan kid pulled off what our own progressive politicians fumbled so poorly in March. Our de facto antagonist, Ben Feinstein, conducts an impressively conniving puppeteering of a charm-forward yokel that recalls Carville and Stephanopoulos’ herding of Bill Clinton, with perfected politicking skills most above the age of 35 are still struggling to manifest. Meanwhile, he’s still too young to legally vote. He’s an honest-to-God menace who stresses the faults of the individual over fundamental systemic failings: it’s maddeningly entertaining.
Our most progressive figure, René, runs a campaign on purposeful ambiguities to create the air of bipartisanship. It’s smart, even if the Biden/Harris campaign is trying it in their 2020 election run-up and failing miserably; the idea of playing Houdini, misleading just to secure the vote, still feels like a wise ploy for the American electorate. For decades, Republicans have blatantly stolen elections, meanwhile Democrats try to hide the fact that they mostly agree with the enemy’s platform, but are dedicated nevertheless to the nobility of an election process. When they go low, we go high—it’s cute and cuddly, but people with lives at stake keep losing with that strategy. In fact, it may be the key ingredient to any political failure of the 20th century. It’s one of the funniest Democratic mottos given how much on-record cheating and lying there is that explicitly harms those in need. We know you don’t want to fight for us, but could you at least lie for us? Trump’s coronavirus task force gathered to subvert CDC guidelines while Anthony Fauci was receiving throat surgery, like… that’s what we are up against. If there’s anything to impart unto Gen Z, it’s that with millions in fatal peril, maybe get your hands dirty if it means literally saving lives. I won’t go as far as to say “René Otero 2040,” but in BOYS STATE he comes to harsh epiphanies about the political process that many of our parents have still yet to comprehend. I’m positive the subjects of this film will go on to swindle the ins and outs of American government, but I also have faith that René is the one to work his hardest to disrupt it: no pressure, dude.
Do you know how many busted motherfuckers I know who haven’t shifted their barebones conservative stances since they were 17? Or, somehow even worse, learned in their early 20s that they could thrift the aesthetic of performative progressivism for pussy while voting Red? To be politically-minded is to recognize the mounting importance of presenting that you know your facts; never sharing the facts themselves, never committing the actions to follow through. Ben Shapiro appeals infinitely more to centrists than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (it makes perfect sense why the Federalists’ dream-boy candidate for Governor is hoisted as a Shapiro pupil). The Alex Jones grifting and Crowder counter-tactics of making the uneducated mob turn on decorum by yelling “Bias!” and “Absurd!” are becoming core to the social curriculum. The fact of the matter is that a boy being accepted for Boys State probably knows more than the average American does about the branches of government, so, yeah, it’s spine-chilling when strats for training chimpanzees can still pinch a collective nerve triggering a crowd to demagogue against the individual. It’s MEATBALLS with the caught-unaware starkness of the Maysles Brothers, McBaine and Moss (who previously directed the incredible South Dakota odyssey, THE OVERNIGHTERS) spectacularly manipulating hundreds of hours of footage to craft meticulously honed dramatic beats left and right. Perfectly inserted glances, asides, and talking head segments paint a breathing panorama of a breakneck experiment designed to overwhelm. It’s awe-inspiring documentary filmmaking.
During the first round of legislation voting, the boys ban cargo shorts and pineapple on pizza. Alongside the trolling is chanting and shouting over abortion and gun rights. In many ways, BOYS STATE is the scariest film of 2020, a cultural record of the continued constitutional moral corruption of American souls factory-fed into a civil liberties slaughterhouse. The fascist propaganda will always work in a nation state that deems you the traitor for decrying otherwise and our political systems are such that it is simply more comfortable to abide by its game theory than defy any of its conventions. Bless the efforts of Steven Garza and René Otero, but the vigor in their hot-blooded pursuits of symbolic victory stood no chance against the chud majority. There’s an element to BOYS STATE that emphasizes the gamification of politics, which is a loophole that conceivably excuses many of the subjects’ actions. To play devil’s advocate: if I’m playing Capture the Flag in P.E. with some kids, you can’t expect me to question the invasive intent of claiming property from an adjacent land. The foundations were made to stay the same: the only thing that changes are the conditions that pressure participants into doing nothing about it. Millennials are barely encroaching their 30s and already doing to Gen Z what Gen X did to us, leaving the post of accountability and responsibility for these sweet TikTok’ers to take over! “You guys got it from here!” The teens make sub-par memes bolstered by surface-level Wikipedia research, so obviously the kids are alright.
Our children will, in fact, repeat our mistakes—it’s the function of The American Dream™. BOYS STATE’s triumphant final words are a Garza-led “We are America,” in reference to a Texas DNC stage of fellow young activists, but I think that’s more false hope than the actual truth of the matter. This inherently despicable country’s conservative building blocks have indoctrinated yet another generation, perhaps this time with such psychological, digital-based aplomb that it’s a certified death blow to progressivism. Or, maybe, the hard-wiring of the Internet era can allow for more enlightened self-education. Regardless, this isn’t a fight to leave for our descendents to inherit. It is a joint effort. OK, there’s some obligatory optimism for you. With all this doomer analysis, it’s that very nihilism that gives me a shred of hope, the shred that tells me “Okay…”
“So this is what we’re stuck with.”
“And it’s always been what we’re stuck with, and will be stuck with.”
“No seismic, natural shift is coming, so I don’t feel bad burning the machine to the ground: it’s a fucking wrap.”