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A New Documentary Shows The Ups And Downs Of Young Men Playing The Game Of Politics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A new documentary on Apple TV+ follows a group of young men in Texas who take part in Boys State. It's a summer program run by the American Legion where politically motivated young men come together to form their own representative government. During the week-long program, they develop party platforms, pass bills and eventually elect one of their peers as governor. The documentary is called "Boys State," and it shows the ups and downs of these young men playing the game of politics and the tension between winning on ideas versus winning at all costs. Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss directed the film. When we spoke, I asked what drew them to this specific program in Texas, considering there are similar ones across the country for boys and girls.

AMANDA MCBAINE: Neither Jesse or I went through the program ourselves growing up in California. And so we didn't know about the program until in 2017, we read an article in The Washington Post about the 2017 Texas Boys State voting to secede from the union. And I think that that article and that act kind of struck us as interesting but also provocative.

FADEL: The program divides the boys into two camps - federalists and nationalists, which means nothing at the outset. But the boys are responsible for building their own party platforms. And there are points in the film where the boys talk about politics as a game to be played. Jesse or Amanda, what did you think of that? And where did they learn that?

JESSE MOSS: Well, that was one of the questions we had going into the project was, well, how formed are their politics? And where are they getting their political views from? We were lucky to find four very exceptional, complicated young men to follow through this experience who have very different politics. And as you discover in the film, some of them are not fully formed. In fact, one young man is really kind of at war with himself about what he believes in. Another young man, Steven Garza, really is quite sure of his politics. He's been volunteering on political campaigns since he was 14. And then on the other side of the divide, you have a young man who reveres Ronald Reagan. They are complicated, surprising young men and really coming to know themselves in surprising, sometimes shocking ways.

FADEL: You mentioned Steven Garza, one of the four teenagers in the documentary that you focus on. He's a child of immigrants, would be the first to graduate high school, go on to college. Early on you decided to focus on Steven. Why?

MCBAINE: Somehow we found Steven in an orientation outside of Houston of 300 kids. And there were plenty of loud voices in the room. And we were drawn to him, I think partly because we were looking for someone with liberal politics. And we really needed diversity in our cast of political views but also to background and life experience. And he was clearly - instantly, it was clear to us that he was politically savvy. He'd worked on campaigns, as Jesse mentioned. And though he was quieter and more shy, we knew he had skills with people. And that - and sort of - well, we see it in the film. There's a lot of retail politics that we do. But we didn't - it was also a surprise to us that he was able to then give the kind of speech that you see him give. So he surprised us, as all of the characters that we followed ended up surprising us.

FADEL: You know, Steven ends up, as you allude to, running for governor. And here he is campaigning and addressing rumors about his support for gun control, which is pretty controversial among this group of boys. A lot of concern around gun control.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOYS STATE")

STEVEN GARZA: On the Second Amendment, to be completely honest with you, yes, yes, I did lead the March for Our Lives to Houston movement. But let me tell you, to the federalists who wish to smear me and put words in my mouth and take quotes from people who aren't me and base me off of that, I'd like to think you guys are better than that. I know you guys can be better than that. I've been trying to appeal to the best part of every one of you.

(APPLAUSE)

FADEL: So the thing that struck me watching Garza, who describes himself as progressive, was how he tailored his message to appeal to as broad a base as possible without compromising his own principles and, really, winning support from people who think very differently than him. And to be honest, that type of approach isn't something we're really seeing from politicians right now. What did you take away from that moment?

MOSS: Well, he's really walking a high wire in trying to navigate this largely conservative, largely white space. He's a young man of Mexican descent with progressive politics. And Steven's suddenly called to account for his activism. And I think that ability to connect with his audience in the moment and in the room and to sort of bring them to his position of compromise is not something that we expected either him to offer or for the boys in the room to respond to.

FADEL: What's interesting too is of the four boys that you chose, three of them are very different than the wider sort of thousand boys that are out there, right? Rene, a Black teenager, very few other African Americans, and then Ben, who is an amputee. And yet they rise to these powerful positions. I'm just curious about the choices you made in the four boys.

MOSS: Yeah. It is a very white, male group. And I think, in a way, the world we see in "Boys State" is a microcosm of our politics for better and for worse. And I think we all recognize we need more diverse voices. We need to reflect the diversity of our country. And we have a lot of work to do as a country, as does Boys State as a program. Possibly in their future it could mean integrating the sexes, which I think would be really healthy. And Steven Garza asks, you know, how about Peoples State?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BOYS STATE")

GARZA: Boys State's a little too genderfied (ph). I think we should go for, like, Peoples State.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Peoples State?

GARZA: Yes. I'm just memeing (ph) on you. Don't worry.

MOSS: You know, we also didn't know that the young guys we met like Steven, who had liberal politics, would do well at all. Frankly, we didn't expect him to. And I think in that surprise, in his ability to reach across and connect with other people and find what they shared in common was a little kernel of hope. Amidst all the hysteria and the sort of sloganeering that you might expect from a bunch of teenage boys was actually something much deeper and more profound and really, honestly, quite moving.

You know, we laughed a lot. But we also cried a lot making this film. And we saw a lot of teenage boys cry, which, I don't know. I don't have a teenage boy, but I don't think they cry too often. And I think that was - I don't know - sort of revealing of a kind of contest of masculinity that we saw on display here. You know, there's sort of two kinds of being a young man. You can be a young man of compassion and listening and empathy. Or you can be a young man of strength. And these two views are embodied in the different boys that we focus on. And they get played out in the political contest I think in very eerily evocative ways as they do in our national politics.

FADEL: You know, that's what's so interesting about the film. As you both mentioned, it's really about the American political system, the two-party system, the people that make it up. And in the documentary, that means some pretty nasty things happen. There are smear campaigns and offensive, racist memes that some of the boys create about others. Different points in the film, some of the boys suggest that politics is a game and the goal is to dominate. But there are also some beautiful moments of rallying around truth and virtue and the idea of a better world for everyone. So I have to ask each of you, has working on this film made you more or less hopeful about the future of American politics?

MCBAINE: I will say for myself, to meet folks like Steven and be reminded that that kind of empathic leadership is something that I'm hungry for, but also to see him be able to summon this group and rise to power, I think that - being reminded that it's not just myself that's hungry for that kind of leadership. For me, that was incredibly hopeful.

MOSS: I think not just Steven, but to see the other young men in the film, Robert and Ben and Rene just throw themselves into this process to be reminded that democracy is not a spectator sport, that its health depends on our collective investment in its well-being, whether it's in the form of running for office, which Steven Garza may well do, or become an activist, which Rene Otero in our film has since become, or to go to West Point, which Robert McDougall has and serve his country in the military. Even though we don't agree with all of their politics, I think to see their level of engagement, the seriousness with which they take their roles and responsibilities and to then question some of the bad choices they have made, which Ben in particular has done since the film was finished. He's looked back on his very negative campaigning and recognized that that's really corrosive to the body politic. And to see his self-scrutiny, I find that hopeful, as hopeful as Steven's optimism. So I am hopeful.

FADEL: That was Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine. Their new documentary, "Boys State," is streaming now on Apple TV+. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.