Robert MacDougall in “Boys State.” Apple TV+/A24

Three summers ago in Austin, a thousand or so rising high school seniors participating in a mock legislature for youth leaders made national headlines, voting to secede from the Union. It was, of course, a toothless vote, made during an annual gathering known as Boys State, one of many such programs for precocious male adolescents run by the American Legion in nearly every state, along with its sister organization Girls State.

Nevertheless, documentarians Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss thought that development – entirely theoretical but perhaps telling about some disturbance in the zeitgeist – was interesting. The very next year, they arranged to make a fly-on-the-wall documentary, “Boys State,” about the 2018 Texas assembly. Centering on the campaigns of two fake political parties, Federalists and Nationalists, and the subsequent, culminating election, the film presents a camplike atmosphere that turns out to be, in some ways, not that different from what you might expect: a bit of rowdiness/silliness – someone floats an abortive party platform banning cargo shorts – mostly conservative, lots of talk about gun rights, and an overlay of nerdy intensity that swings between endearing and grating.

But the quartet of boys upon whom McBaine and Moss have focused bring some nuance and surprise to this fascinating look at leadership-in-training, whose past participants have included former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. There’s Ben Feinstein, a bilateral amputee on prosthetic legs who is a model of perseverance, good cheer and slick demagoguery; the liberal, fish-out-of-water transplant from Chicago, René Otero; and Robert MacDougall, whose honesty about his own embrace of political expediency – another word for lying to get elected – is less refreshing than alarming.

Steven Garza in “Boys State.” Apple TV+/A24

But the film really revolves around Steve Garza, the Nationalist candidate for “governor” who bucks the teen gathering’s conservative leaning with a platform of universal background checks for gun purchases and other leftie planks. Garza’s earnest, heartfelt approach to politics – even one that is wholly make-believe – provides the film’s heart and soul.

Whether he wins is hardly the point of the film, although the ultimate results of the election, presented with all the suspense of a real election-night nail-biter, deliver the documentary’s most powerful emotional punch. For some, it will be cause for despair; for others, hope.

It seems clear which side McBaine and Moss fall on.

“Boys State” shows us where some future politicos learn the dirty tricks, mudslinging and opportunism that we will likely continue to see in civic discourse and politicking – or perhaps it simply shows us how well that lesson has already been drummed into our youth, even before they get to a place like Boys State. But it also reveals the potential and the appeal of someone who chooses not to adopt those tactics. Garza is going places, it seems clear, and many may find themselves hoping to see him pursue some form of public service.

What is the appropriate response to this fascinating look at the next generation of civic engagement – which explores how polarization has trickled down to those who are not even old enough to vote? Arguably, it is neither hope nor despair. Rather, it seems that a realistic balance between the two is in order. “Boys State” is a portrait of the country in microcosm: divided, but not yet irredeemably lost.

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