NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, September 18th. Thanks for joining us today for The World and Everything in It. So glad to have you along!
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next: an award-winning documentary about mock elections and very real political drama.
Here’s reviewer Emily Whitten.
EMILY WHITTEN, REVIEWER: Every summer, the veterans organization American Legion hosts nearly 20,000 young men in week-long camps called Boys State. (There’s a Girls State, too, but that’s another story.) At least before COVID-19, hundreds of boys would come together in each state to create a sort of mock government. The focus is on the political process. Running for office, campaigning, holding elections. It’s a lot of fun, and viewers can get a glimpse of it all in a new, award-winning documentary called Boys State filmed in Texas in 2018.
TRAILER: A message of unity as good as it sounds is not winning anyone any elections. Primary polls are now open. Get y’all selves ready for a turbulent election. Whatever happens, dude. Best of luck. You win, I support you fully. My name is Steven Garza and I’m running for governor.
You could summarize the film this way—two liberal documentary-makers crash a conservative boys camp. On the other hand, despite Democratic bias, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine use a cinema vérité style that lets the boys speak for themselves. That does give viewers some level of insight.
At times Boys State feels relaxed or tongue-in-cheek, but other times it bursts with excitement … and a lot of testosterone. Think running of the bulls, as more than a thousand raucous and rowdy 17 year olds converge on Austin.
CLIP: [Hoo-ahing and cheering]
In the midst of the chaos, McBaine and Moss focus on four boys—Steven, Robert, René, and Ben. Much of the time they portray the boys as three-dimensional people who make real moral choices. Choices like whether to lie to get ahead. Here’s Robert:
CLIP: This is a very, very conservative group we have here. Very conservative. My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all. So I chose to pick a new stance. That’s politics. I think. That’s politics.
Unlike grown-up politics, here we get to peek behind the curtain to what’s really in the boys’ hearts and minds. Also valuable, the model of servant leadership we see in the golden boy of the film, Steven Garza. Steven begins Boys State in a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt and ends the film speaking at the 2018 Texas Democratic Convention. But whatever you think about his politics, the way Steven treats other people stands out.
CLIP: I’m one of the nationalists running for governor. I don’t want to sound fake about it. If you have any questions. What’s your name? Steven Garza. All right, I’m gonna come back to you.
From the beginning, Steven sets out to be a servant. He talks with the boys he disagrees with and looks for ways to represent their views as well as his own. Most of all, he doesn’t belittle his opponents.
In contrast, Ben is a Reagan-loving conservative. But as the week progresses, Ben smears his opponents with whatever dirt he can find. For example, he misrepresents Steven’s stance on guns. In his mind, it’s just part of the game.
I found Ben the most intriguing and disappointing of the group. It’s true that the filmmakers don’t treat him with the same kid gloves as Steven.
You don’t hear magical twinkle music when Ben appears, the way you do with progressive Steven.
And the filmmakers may have skewed his treatment. But that doesn’t excuse the self-serving behavior we do see and hear.
CLIP: I have no regret about that decision, morally or politically, at all. Because politically, it worked. I don’t know, maybe God will judge me differently.
Boys State does contain bad language and negative role models. But we also see a clear difference between servant leadership and self-serving politicians. And the fact that these young men get the opportunity to vote for leaders at all is worth celebrating, even as human flaws show through.
One final point. Since the film’s release on Apple TV in August, many media outlets have focused on boys in the film with progressive views. For instance, René wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times. But the most powerful reflection I’ve seen comes from Ben, the conservative Reaganite. Ben says that when he first saw the film, he felt misrepresented. Then, he had a change of heart, as he explains in this interview with the Aspen Institute.
AUDIO: But then as I reflected on it more, I said, that’s kind of right. I shouldn’t be defensive, I should be probing about it. You know, when Steven’s gun control issue came out, my first instinct was, let’s smear him on it. It wasn’t me trying to be mean, it was like that’s what all the adults are doing, so of course we’re going to do that. It just seemed natural. Boys State was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on it and say, just cause that’s how it’s been, that’s not how it should be.
That kind of mature introspection and repentance feels almost shocking in our culture today. And it gives me renewed hope that God isn’t done with these boys—or our country—just yet.
I’m Emily Whitten.