American democracy is alive and well, or at least functioning, in “Boys State,” a happy pill of a documentary. Each year, thousands of high-school boys congregate in their home states for some intense governance cosplay sponsored by the American Legion. In a single whirlwind week, participants are embedded in opposing parties — like Federalists and Nationalists — decide platforms and run for office, including governor. The movie focuses on the 2018 edition of Texas Boys State, when some 1,000 teens embraced ideals and engaged in a lot of hoo-ha togetherness.
After some bare-minimum background — images of Boys State alums like Dick Cheney and Cory Booker are mixed into the opening credits — the directors, Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, jump right into the fray. This shrewdly puts viewers on more or less the same newbie level as the subjects, including Ben Feinstein. A “politics junkie” and double amputee from San Antonio, Ben owns a Ronald Reagan doll and announces his personal platform when he explains to his family that it’s bad for America to focus on “race or gender or disability” rather than “individual failings.”
Steven Garza, Ben’s political opposite, enters soon after. A thoughtful, open-faced striver from Houston, Steven calls himself a progressive, admires Bernie Sanders (and Napoleon) and arrives at Texas Boys State in a Beto O’Rourke T-shirt. Ben and Steven don’t interact much at first because they’re in opposing parties. Ben is thrown in with the Federalists, where he secures the position of party chairman. Steven is placed in the Nationalists with the two other main figures: Robert MacDougall, an Austin smiler in cowboy boots who summons up visions of George W. Bush; and the sharp-witted, razor-tongued René Otero, a transplant from Chicago.
With a lot of access, multiple cameras and great narrative flow, the filmmakers track these four political tyros as they navigate the days, nights and many, many meetings of their Boys State encounter. Despite all the yammering, the tone remains briskly energetic (the editor is Jeff Gilbert), and the boys appealing, or mostly. Although the week’s activities vary (and include a talent show), the focus remains on process. Each party selects its reps and spends time drawing up a platform, with suggestions that range from the frivolous to the deadly serious. Gun rights are a big deal, and more than one boy declares his opposition to abortion.
I kept wondering what the Texas Bluebonnet Girls State might think of these guys and their views on that Constitutional right. Early on, the movie states that the Legion has “sponsored a program for teenagers” since 1935 and that there “are separate programs for boys and girls.” The history is complicated, and instructive. The Legion sponsors Boys State, which the organization created “to counter the socialism-inspired Young Pioneer Camps,” as its website puts it. Girls State was first presented in 1937 and is run by the formerly all-female American Legion Auxiliary, a support organization. The girls’ program isn’t as prominent as the boys’, as the filmmakers’ indifference to it suggests.
Despite this, it’s easy to be charmed by “Boys State,” which is so good that you wish it were better. The participants are the big draw, alternately affecting and exasperating — they’re kids! The adults running things, by contrast, are mostly Charlie Brown-style grown-ups, more place-holders than emissaries of the Legion, which remains out of focus. When Steven invokes L.G.B.T.Q. rights I wondered how many viewers would know (or remember) that the Legion supported the right of the Boy Scouts to ban, as the Legion magazine put it in 2004, “homosexual leaders.” An article in the same issue declared that “same-sex marriage is not a civil-rights issue.”
“Boys State” makes an inadvertent argument for a deeper, sharper approach to this material when, during one of its periodic interviews, René says that he’s “never seen so many white people, ever.” It’s a funny, appropriately uncomfortable moment, the kind the documentary could have used more of. Given the rapidly changing demographics of Texas, the whiteness of the Texas Boys State in 2018 seems worthy of some real consideration. Here, though, race effectively functions as the movie’s uneasy background noise — increasing and decreasing like radio static — while the larger issue of institutional racism remains strictly out of earshot.
That’s frustrating partly because of the Legion’s history of segregated programs. Louisiana, for instance, had separate Boys States for white and Black participants. That kind of detail might have made the documentary as profound as it is fun; at least it would have added some valuable context to René’s observation. By eliding the Legion’s history and focusing on winning personalities, the filmmakers have made an engaging movie about some kids who — as their jokes give way to debates, stratagems and even shocks — already seem to be drafting their own more interesting sequel.
Rated PG-13 for no obvious reason. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Apple TV+.