‘Boys State’ director Jesse Moss talks foils of boyhood in American politics

Boys State Documentary

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From its outward premise, the annual Boys State convention in Texas seems like a ticking time bomb waiting to be set off by any one of the 1,000 rowdy teenage boys in attendance.

Boys State, a weeklong program sponsored by American Legion, is an amalgamation of learning about and practicing electoral politics. The attendees are randomly divided into two fictional parties, the Federalists and the Nationalists, and work together to elect party leadership and form a platform before battling onstage. 

As expected, multiple points of tension arise during the electoral process: There are takes on abortion, gun control and even succession. In the wake of the Boys State 2017 convention voting to secede from the United States, paired with the 2016 presidential election results, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine sought to witness the stakes of Boys State 2018 — to see if democracy really was still alive within this microcosm of American politics. 

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Moss stated that he remains uncertain about where the film “Boys State” stands in the context of American politics. 

“I hope that the film is timeless (with) the story that it tells and the questions that it asks,” Moss said. “I think it also very much speaks to this specific moment in time, because this, what we’re wrestling with, is: How do we find a center in American life? How do we hold the systems that sustain our democracy together? How do we find civil discourse in a moment when it all seems so uncivil?”

Although it is now two years since McBain and Moss ventured into the world of Boys State, the themes within the film echo the points of contestation in the upcoming presidential election. 

The film finds its footing in its four main characters: Steven Garza, a son of Latinx immigrants; Ben Feinstein, a Regan-respecting political mastermind; Robert MacDougall, a confident private school student who dreams of attending West Point; and René Otero, a Chicago native who seeks to understand the “other side” in American politics. 

To the surprise of Moss and McBaine, the film’s four main subjects made for the almost perfect insight into Boys State, as Moss said each was open in his confidence and vulnerability during the week. An even greater surprise for Moss, however, was the perspective on boyhood that the film exposed. 

“I think that the film became a really powerful meditation on … the complexity of boyhood in America today, in an era of a Me Too,” Moss said. “I think (it’s a) kind of awakening as a culture to the roles of young men and what healthy masculinity should look like and feel like.” 

McBaine and Moss were able to capture the main subjects in their childhood homes, distancing the subjects from their performative, political personas. Moss stated that the home visits were beneficial “to be in the rooms and kind of get to know them as people, because once they go to Boys State and they all put on that matching white t-shirt, you know, they’re sort of reduced in a way.” 

The Boys State election speeches are framed to be a “Lord of the Flies” situation: Coral Island is the auditorium, the conch is the microphone. Speakers voiced fears of the loosening reigns over the nation’s masculinity to the encouraging cries of their respective parties. 

However, “Boys State” also shows the counter to the natural immaturity of teenage boys. There’s a sense of pride that comes with the responsibility thrust upon the attendees, as the elected officials hold themselves accountable to represent their party in the race for overall leadership roles. 

Moss confesses that the challenge of this film was to convince the audience that the mock election of Boys State was representative of something bigger. He doesn’t credit the year of editing, but rather the characters themselves. 

“The stakes are really high for all of us in our country, and I think that the lock of the film, the power of the film, is that we feel those stakes in who they are and what they embody,” Moss said. “Stephen’s goodness is integrity — the way he conducts himself, his ability not only to find his voice, but to reach across those boundaries, those divides that are political and cultural and economic, and connect with these kids who are not like him that are white and that are conservative.” 

And although Moss started out his professional career in Washington D.C., working amongst personas found in “Boys State,” he actually points to his undergraduate experience for his introduction to political fervor. 

“I would actually credit my experience at UC Berkeley for my political sort of awakening,” Moss said. “I think just the environment of a campus, and the kind of cultural and political debates that are just ever-present at Berkeley, were part of it.”

While the subjects of “Boys State” seem to hold passionate stances on political issues at a much earlier age than Moss did himself, Moss and McBaine were able to capture the duality inside each of the teenagers, capitulating into moments when boyhood shone through above all else. 

Boys State is now available for streaming on Apple TV+.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.