The documentary premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film FestivalTWITTER/JACKSONLEETX18

As the bus to the 2018 Texas Boys State begins to fill up, there is already a sense of directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s mission. Their hero to-be, Steven Garza, introduces himself to a handful of the other teenagers set to participate in this annual state election simulation — an event started in 1937, with notorious previous attendees like Bill Clinton, which aims to teach America’s youth the value of citizenship and reasonable argument.

Steven Gaza is one of the boys that the documentary followsTWITTER/THELUCKYMAN

Steven is met with snapshots of a Trump America; “I’m a progressive person in a room full of mostly conservative people,” he says between cutaways to one high-schooler professing their dislike for Obama because he is “near-socialist,” and another explaining their, albeit apologetic, support for the Trump presidency. The directors are, of course, simply setting their narrative on its feet, but there is something about these opening scenes that doesn’t sit well with me.

It feels too easy — find a place with a well-known conservative consensus, shoot a dozen reels of film showing kids reflecting that consensus during a mock election and portray the few liberal voices that arise as flickers of hope for America. Steven Garza, as the promising candidate for election to the most coveted role at the convention, and René Otero, the documentary’s other rightful star, are dumped with the weight of America’s political future on their shoulders — a seemingly unfair task given to them by directors that are noticeably absent from the documentary.

“Trying to mould the experience of the participants into a wider narrative takes away from the more important moments of the film.”

This is not to say that the liberals of America can’t find hope in the support that (spoiler alert) nearly wins Steven the prized role of Governor. Nor is it to say that the directors are wrong to try to present the narrative that they do; we can certainly learn a lot from these kids about how to do politics in a divisive post-2016 America. But it is to say that, by presenting the story of Boys State as a sign of hope for the future of America, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss ask us to see this mock election for high-schoolers as more than what it is.

Maybe I’m pessimistic, or just a little too sceptical, but the hope of a liberal America surely isn’t found in Texas at an election that is ultimately won by a Ben Shapiro-esque boy, or in debates that include a motion to “relocate all Prius drivers to Oklahoma because we hate them and don’t want them here.” For me, trying to mould the experience of the participants into a wider narrative takes away from some of the more important, shocking, and inspiring moments of the film.

Family are important in supporting both Steven and RenéTWITTER/JAKOBKOLNESS

We lose sight of what it’s like to be in the position of Steven and René, to be navigating their own political beliefs in an atmosphere like the Texas Boys State event. René, in particular, seems hopeful about the convention at the beginning, quipping that on explaining the programme to his Mum she replied: “it sounds conservative, just let me know if you need to come home.” Early on, he even goes as far as saying that the experience is what “literally every liberal needs.” But throughout the film his small victories and big clashes with the gun-toting conservative consensus, and their effect on him, seems underexplored by the directors.

It’s clear that there’s racism at play during the election; he has to fight harder than any other white candidate to win, and he has to do even more to keep his job — he meets the calls for his impeachment by the other participants with the powerful and telling statement that: “They want to impeach me? It’s just a little different for somebody that looks like me.”

“They are presented to us as more idols of hope to be praised as future leaders, not kids sensitively navigating an exhausting and hard election process.”

At moments like these the absence of the directors, the absence of their support during interviews with the teenagers, is most apparent — René, in these scenes, seems like he is left alone against the crowd, and his victories combating them in speeches feel minor in comparison to the experiences he endures.

René’s time at Texas Boys State gives us a greater sense of what is lacking in the documentary. We don’t get to know what it’s like to walk in the shoes of Steven or René, they are presented to us as more idols of hope to be praised as future leaders, not kids sensitively navigating an exhausting and hard election process. The effect of that process on them, and on the electorate, is left mostly out of the frame. We only have the post-production interviews to guess at what that effect might have been — and since René has decided he no longer wants to pursue a career in electoral politics, we don’t have to do much guessing.

Following this experience, René no longer wants to pursue a career in politicsTWITTER/BOYSSTATEMOVIE

It would be wrong to end this article without thinking about how the effects of playing politics in mock elections are closer to home than we might think. Despite the sheer magnitude of the Boys State convention making the Cambridge Union seem like a pokey satire of student elections, it would be interesting to ask whether there are more parallels between the two than just their electoral activities. Both seem to offer the opportunity for those who succeed to follow in the footsteps of powerful politicians; through Boys State you have the chance to become the next Bill Clinton, and through the Cambridge Union the promised riches of being the next Kenneth Clark.


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Without wanting to limit the shelf-life of this article, I can’t ignore that the Cambridge Union appears to be a world of ruthless mock-elections and wannabe politicians, a world that seems troublingly similar to the that of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’s 2020 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner, Boys State.