'Boys State' looks at American politics through Texas program

There was plenty of potential risk involved for the leadership of the Texas American Legion Boys State program when filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine pitched a documentary about the program in late 2017.

“The downside to letting in an outsider is that you have to provide a lot of context to explain what’s happening, especially for a fast-paced, condensed, complex program like Boys State that has so many decades of history,” said Daren Brabham, Texas Boys State’s assistant director of media relations. “There was a risk the filmmakers wouldn’t really get it and wouldn’t ultimately tell the story in a clear or fair way.”

But “Boys State,” the documentary McBaine and Moss directed and produced, turned out to be a positive experience.

The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at January’s Sundance Film Festival, is coming to selected theaters on July 31 and Apple TV+ on Aug. 14. Filmed during the 2018 Texas Boys State session, the documentary follows four “statesmen” — Steven Garza, Robert MacDougall, Ben Feinstein, and Rene Otero — through the week.

McBaine and Moss found Feinstein, Garza and MacDougall through preliminary interviews before the program, and were drawn to Otero after seeing his campaign speech to become party chair. Garza and MacDougall end up facing off as their party’s top two candidates for governor of Texas Boys State, while Feinstein opts out of a run for governor to instead vie for his party’s chair.

“The four main figures in the film are, I think, representative of a bit of the diversity of engagement strategies we see in the program,” Brabham said. “It’s interesting to see the range and how they go about pursuing their aims. Each of these four — and every statesman, really — is more complex than an archetype or singly focused strategist, but generally speaking you see in them a mix of strengths: the behind-the-scenes, grassroots strategist; the gifted orators; the earnest policy-minded folks; and the relatable charismatic types. And real-world politics is full of this range of talent, too.”

The process leading to the film began the year before, when the filmmakers saw a story about the 2017 Texas Boys State legislature voting to secede from the U.S., which led to Boys Nation senators voting to readmit the state during that summer’s Boys Nation session.

In a discussion in conjunction with an online screening of the movie as part of the Aspen Film Festival, Moss said he and McBaine were struggling to understand the political divisions in the country when they saw the news article about Texas Boys State’s secession.

“We thought with Boys State, in Texas, potentially there was a prism to really look at that question that we as filmmakers were trying to answer: how did we get to this point (in our country),” he said.

Brabham recalled a long phone conversation with McBaine to describe the history and scope of the Boys State program.

“In talking with her, I could tell they were genuinely intrigued by what we do and were interested in telling a fair and complete story from beginning to end,” Brabham said.

“That was important to us: we didn't want a film crew to roll in, cherry pick some sensational bits, and craft a story that didn't feel true to our program. We’ve had some journalists unfairly write about our program in that way in the past: taking quotes out of context, focusing on the experiences of one or two outlier participants, etc. But Jesse and Amanda explained they wanted to tell a complete story.”

Texas Boys State leadership also vetted the filmmakers and their previous work, which includes award-winning films “The Overnighters” and “Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story.”

“They take a cinéma vérité approach to their filmmaking, meaning they’re more interested in letting their subjects speak for themselves and tell their own stories with minimal editorializing from the filmmakers,” Brabham said. “In the end, their transparency, honesty, willingness to listen, genuine interest in our program, and strong track record helped our program’s leadership, and ultimately the state Legion, greenlight the project.”

After the Department of Texas approved the project, one of Texas Boys State’s counselors, Andrew Porter, was assigned to serve as a liaison to the film crew during the week of the program. Porter helped the filmmakers under the program’s hectic schedule and helped the crew find time to interview the statesmen during the week.

“It kind of mirrors what the statesmen go through and meant the filmmakers had to just run with their gut, let the statesmen tell their story, and not be able to plan for a contrived way to cobble together stories,” Brabham said. “In other words, the filmmakers had to ‘learn by doing’ on the fly in trying to capture the story of Boys State, just as we expect statesmen to ‘learn by doing’ when they arrive at the program.”

In the Aspen Film Festival discussion, Garza said he didn’t think the cameras made a difference in how the week turned out. “With the chaos going on around that week, (the camera) really does become the background,” he said.

And Feinstein said the experience — both of the program itself and seeing the movie — helped him reflect on the nature of American politics.

“I feel like politics have always been kind of adversarial, but we have reached a point in American politics where this adversarial nature, this insistence on having the moral high ground, in a lot of ways our politics and our morality have blended together, and I see a lot of trends in American politics today that I embodied at Texas Boys State,” he said. “… I feel like we’ve reached a point in our politicking where negative campaigning and smearing and false information and skewed narratives have replaced an objective basis of fact and an objective respect for the person across from you.

“Boys State was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on it and say, just because that’s how it’s been isn’t how it should be.”

While news of the documentary’s success continues to trickle out, Texas Boys State leadership are preparing for an expected surge of interest once the film hits Apple TV+.

“We’re developing a plan for how to field interest from media, the public, and future potential statesmen. We hope the film spurs greater interest in our program from students, their parents, high schools, and Legion posts across the state who do not yet sponsor students in their community to attend our program,” Brabham said.

“The perspective of folks who aren’t as invested in the program as we are or as the Legion is helps to validate what we always knew: Boys State and Girls State programs around the country really, truly make an impact and spur talented young people to become leaders in their community,” Brabham said. “And we’re happy there’s a film now that captures that.”