Popular media has spent the last four years searching for the answer to quite a basic question concerning the Trump era: “How did we arrive here?” To the urbane liberal consumer, the last eight years seemed relatively harmless, a mark of competent technocrats able to stem the tide of unease among the materially comfortable. Boys State, the hipster prestige effort from an Apple/A24 partnership that would seem self-parodic if algorithmically generated, throws its hat in the ring to answer the very same question. A nationwide program dating back a century (founded as a reactionary counterpart to the socialist youth movement of Young Pioneer camps, a fact woefully omitted in its opening exposition) where young men simulate the American civic system, with exceptional participants graduating to the honor of Boy’s Nation, with a track record of taking in great men in their adolescence, with alumni ranging from Bill Clinton to Dick Cheney. Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss zone in on the Texas state competition, hoping to extract the greater truth of our times straight from the mouth of babes. Unfortunately, Boys State, striving to ascribe universal truth as solutions to socially-constructed problems, treating an open system as a vacuum, and a wholly uncritical presentation in the miscalculated pursuit of vérité objectivity.
McBaine and Moss’s premise is that these children are all innate politicians, driven by some libidinal urge for power present since birth. Principal players are introduced watching Reagan speeches in dark rooms, spouting epigrams of personal responsibility seemingly sourced from the primordial ooze of the pubescent brain rather than an imitation of the shadowy parental figures. Opting for an approach of direct cinema, Boys State fails where its greater apostles (the likes of Frederick Wiseman, Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker) succeeded. Drew or Wiseman used the power of editing to stitch together a thesis, contrasting a fascist teacher’s enforcement of dress code along with the male gaze as atelier for school-issued gym clothes (Wiseman’s High School), while McBaine and Moss use this set of aesthetics to elide the tough questions, cutting away material that doesn’t fit with their thesis, refusing to evolve along with the reality.
Once actually within the thick of it, this intellectual laziness begins to make itself even more apparent. The documentary’s central dialectic is basic new-left v. new-right, trying to probe how a lifetime of being terminally online has poisoned the youth, broadband connections the new fluoride in the water supply. There are invocations of Ben Shapiro and online conservatism, and even the hushed uttering of “memes,” but it goes no further. The complete democratization of political theory, a new home to polemic media, the death of the classic public intellectual, all phenomena uniquely suffered by zoomers — and left completely unexamined by the lazy, entitled, assumptions of Gen Xers. While it is much easier to build a taxonomy of the New Right within the film, obsessed with libidnal drives and socialized responses of homophobia and misogyny, its left-wing contingent is exponentially thornier. Its central figure, Steven Garza, has all the bona fides: son of immigrants, energized by Bernie Sanders, the soul of a poster, the left insurgence personified. However, he reveals himself to be far closer to the center than the film works so hard to convince its audience. His true political heroes are Beto O’Rourke and Napoleon Bonaparte, revealing a soft spot for spineless centrism and a pathological draw toward central power, the non-aristocrat making up for falling short in station of birth (as well as height) by a rise to autocracy. The fact in the wake of the film’s release drooling droves of spineless liberals proclaiming a countdown to his presidential eligibility speaks both to the type of audience this drivel is made for as well as McBaine and Moss’s worldview.
The film also commits an even greater sin than dishonest presentation — naive conclusions. While its axis of good may come up short institutionally (much like real life? Get it? Isn’t this so fucking smart?), its final moments are meant to inspire hope. Garza takes the stage at the Texas Democratic Convention, extolling the utopian vision of a post-partisan America, that there is greatness within this country, a great revelation met with rapturous applause. This moment calls to mind none other than William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops (another fraud perpetrated by dishonest framing). In 2004, a PoC, son of immigrants, a self-labelled “progressive”, a new face on the political scene, took the stage and told us a red America and blue America were relics of the past, a post-partisan nation had arrived. And what was given to us from this great promise? Eight years of corporate bailouts, endless war, kids in cages, the machinery of state-sponsored violence running even smoother than before with technocratic lubricant. Like Basinksi’s loops, the repeated sound degrades, its resonance now even more agony-inducing knowing its emptiness, that in its unraveling the battle is now over. The day may pass, but the song remains the same. And it is repugnant works like Boys State that will ride into town and promise this snake oil is a new flavor, and as we turn away it will be poured upon the taxpayer-funded Harrow, giving it the juice to carve a commandment of “BE JUST,” Kafka’s penal colony now indistinguishable from our democracy.