Reel Dad: Documentary ‘Boys State’ projects political perils

"Boys State” is streaming on Apple TV.

"Boys State” is streaming on Apple TV.

Apple TV / Contributed photo

In a nation divided by politics, any chance for young people to experience the electoral process can be enlightening.

Since 1937, American Legion posts across the country have staged Boys and Girls State events for high school students to spend a week in the summer playing politics. As we learn in the documentary “Boys State”, however, it’s not all fun and games when they gather. The young politicians take their views as seriously as - and perhaps influenced by - past and current political leaders they admire. And the students learn, first hand, that what may sound good on the stump can perpetuate real differences and create lasting divides.

On screen, “Boys State” focuses on students who attend the annual event in Austin, Texas. As they board their buses, anticipating their adventures, the participants immediately begin to scope out the competition, assess who they can trust and take sides in political chit chats. There’s no time to waste because, at Boys State, the campaigns immediately begin, first for Mayors and political party leaders before the big races for state officials including Governor. To win such an election at Boys State is quite an honor as these savvy contenders have in mind. The film follows their search for sound bites to express their positions on complex issues while wondering how much dirt to toss at the other side. Supporting such teenage ambitions are serious agendas for how to use this opportunity as platforms for future careers.

But the participants also learn how politics can hurt. As clearly the film reports the rhetoric of politics, “Boys State” doesn’t hide the anger that words can create. Watching these young people test their toughness on the campaign trail immediately suggests early versions of politicians who fill the news every day. Filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss carefully paint the differences between candidates who speak from the heart as well as those who say what they believe can sway opinion no matter what they may actually believe. And some student politicians, at relatively young ages, begin to learn the art of bending with the wind, however it blows, while others learn to pick up on that, in politics, anything is fair game. Yes, they discover all too soon, politics does have a dark side. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of “Boys State” may be that, only when people stand up for what they truly believe, can a nation protect its values. And that may be what the American Legion hoped to achieve all along.

For this former teenaged politician, the film did bring back memories. Little did I realize - when I attended Boys State in Colorado in the early 1970s - what a difference that experience would make across the state. From that gathering emerged a future Congressman, a state attorney general, a mayor or two, and the rest of us who learned how we can contribute to our nation’s progress. We may have thought we were just having fun, as teenagers do, pretending we were in politics. But those lessons can stick.

Summary: Boys State

Content: High. The perils of politics come to life among ambitious high school students looking to build foundations for the future.

Entertainment: High. Whether or not the students intend to entertain, moviemakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss capture enough exaggerated moments to fill a narrative film.

Message: High. McBaine and Moss remind us that the seeds for political division and discord are often planted early.

Relevance: High. As we deal with the impact of political divide, as a nation, it can be interesting to observe how it all can begin.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. At any age, how we see politics at work can prompt meaningful conversations.

“Boys State” runs 1 hour, 49 minutes, is rated PG-13 for “some strong language and thematic elements” and is available to stream on Apple TV.