Overdose: Constituents of the Flies
On a summer night, deep in the heart of 2020, I put my email into a half-baked website that might as well have spam bombed me. This is the beginning of August, to be exact. The U.S. had just passed 170,000 deaths from COVID, Kamala Harris had just been announced as Biden’s running mate, protests continued, and cable news saw explosive growth. Still, Apple’s streaming service, Apple TV+ (a horrifically confusing name), was still in its infancy and about to release one of its early central draws, an A24 documentary called "Boys State." While I could have just waited to see it easily and for free on Apple TV+ (which I think everyone is still somehow getting at no cost), I signed up on a shady website for a virtual early release screening of the movie. The movie was watermarked so that I couldn’t leak it, but behind that transparent text, I became transfixed by the extremely heightened, meaningless, and startling drama that was captured years ago at a convention for teenage boys in Austin, Texas.
So yes, in case you’re as unaware as I was in 2020, Boys State is a political conference for high school boys, put on by the American Legion yearly in each state. During the week of the event, the boys have the opportunity to nominate themselves for positions in two mock political parties, the Federalists and Nationalists, then run and compete for a top position as Governor of a fake state organized and populated by 1,000 Texan boys who desperately need to get laid. This one week, and four of the most promising attendees, are documented exquisitely by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine.
In what I will formally declare as one of the highest stakes documenting processes ever, our directors must pray that they manage to follow and shoot every consequential moment from the expansive conference. They have one attempt, a metric-ton of cameras and money, and 1,000 boys hungry to let out their opinions with the like-minded few, and gain, for one inconsequential week, the ability to rule ... a democracy. In this quest they succeed in strides, capturing everything from the major speeches laced with hypocritical statements, to the small dialogues where dominance and ego consistently clash, and even the "doomer" memes that are seen on the Instagrams of the attendees. Everything is captured in brilliant detail, with cinematography that beautifully flows from shallow to deep focus with ease. Everything is edited incredibly well too, and a great story is crafted from the mountains of footage they must have had to dig through.
After an opening credit montage that catches us up on some Boys State history and alumni (Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh standing out), we meet two of the boys who it appears McBaine and Moss tracked down before the conference: Ben and Steven. Ben is a bilateral amputee who adores Ronald Reagan. He calls himself a “politics junkie.” In one of the strangest and brilliant documentary introductions I’ve seen, we watch him rehearse an introductory speech in his kitchen for his mom and dad, where he explains his reasoning and justification of his conservative ideology. He doesn’t connect with the fiercely masculine energy of his opponents (did I mention there is an athletic element to the conference?) and has to rely on other methods of garnering support for his run.
Now you might be beginning to imagine why our filmmakers chose to study the Texas iteration of this event, and, well, there are certainly many reasons why Texan boys are ideal for studying masculinity and partisan politics. The plethora of bitingly conservative statements managed to be worded as vaguely moderate and "fair to both sides" might be our largest nauseating reason (these boys do so much devil's advocating that it feels like they’re at a parliament meeting in Hell). It's the many strangely controversial yet empty statements that we hear coming from the attendees that begin to remind us that these boys are not only running an imitation of our Government, but also the politicians that make up that “special democracy” that they cherish.
Voiceover of our second protagonist, Steven, tells us he is a “progressive person in a room full of mostly conservative people.” He’s a real Bernie bro who avidly takes part in local governance and door-to-door campaigns. He, along with boy 3, René Otero, make up the progressive half of the boys we see in depth (both of whom shield themselves by toning down their views and aligning themselves with "bipartisanship"). Boy 4, Robert MacDougall, is an extremely charismatic moderate who is brilliantly and horrifyingly shown hiding many of his personal beliefs to run a conservative campaign. This pattern is one of the most startling themes of this movie: At what point do you sacrifice your own beliefs to satisfy what you think everyone around you wants? Why do you even do this?
When I first saw the movie in 2020, I found such a deep comfort in the openness of it all. It scratched a dark recess of my head that had been wound up from a time where politics was the only thing you could find online, while the real world hid the talk of politics because it might be abrasive. This movie shows a rather extreme crossover of the two. The reality of the digital political age with Texan teenage boys. It can be quite maddening at times, if not horrifying. How can people choose to make politics their personality when this is the end result? These questions barely scratch the surface of what is brought to light in this movie. I don't know if you will leave this thinking it was horrific or hopeful, I don’t even know if you should watch it now or wait for a rainy day when you’re about to jump through a window because of our brilliant elected officials (…maybe that is now). Either way, I hope this movie brings you something to articulate your frustrations and engage your fascinations.