'Boys State' directors on the 'unexpected' power of their acclaimed documentary

Hundreds of teenage boys build a mock government in one of the most compelling documentaries of the year. How did the filmmakers pull it off?
René Otero and Steven Garza are two of the 1,100 high school students who come together to build an elaborate mock government in "Boys State."
René Otero and Steven Garza are two of the 1,100 high school students who come together to build an elaborate mock government in "Boys State."Elise Wrabetz / NBC News; Apple; Getty Images
By Daniel Arkin

In the summer of 2017, husband-and-wife documentary filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine read a news article that seized their attention. They learned that legislators in Texas had voted to secede from the Union — only the legislators, in this case, were teenage boys participating in an elaborate weeklong simulation called Boys State.

Boys State, a summer program sponsored by The American Legion, might be described as the political equivalent of Model U.N. or moot court. Every year, 1,100 teens in states across the country come together to build a mock state legislature, debate mock bills and hold mock elections, culminating in a gubernatorial contest. The program's prominent alums include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and "Quantum Leap" star Scott Bakula.

Moss and McBaine zeroed in on the Texas program as the subject of a documentary that would explore questions about the democratic process and the electoral system. (There's a separate program for girls.) The result, "Boys State," premiered to rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January and arrives on Apple TV Plus on Friday.

"Boys State" is a Rorschach test. It will strike some viewers as a galvanizing ode to the civic passion and rhetorical talent of American youth, a sign that self-governance is alive and well. It will strike others as an alarming portrait of chest-thumping masculinity and political cynicism run amok, proof that the rising generation has fully absorbed what some find most corrosive about real-life Washington.

But the film is also a collection of riveting character studies. Moss and McBaine train their lens on four standouts: Ben, a staunch conservative who plays hardball politics; Steven, a humble progressive who preaches moral leadership; Robert, a good-natured jock with a half-formed political identity; and René, a preternaturally gifted orator who happens to be one of the few Black kids in the program.

In a recent joint interview, Moss and McBaine spoke to NBC News about the unexpected drama and emotion of their experience making "Boys State," and what the film has to say about the future of American political discourse. Here are excerpts from that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

The film spotlights two boys who seem to represent the contemporary American political divide: Ben is a Reagan-worshipping arch-conservative; Steven is a Bernie-supporting progressive and the son of Mexican immigrants. Did you set out to follow two kids who embodied both sides in our culture war, or did that happen organically?

MOSS: What's so unique about the [Boys State] program in American life is that it brings together people with different politics, and they actually get to talk to each other face-to-face. We wanted those viewpoints to be reflected in the characters that we chose.

When we found Steven, his politics were kind of unusual by Boys State standards, which is predominantly conservative. It was a lucky discovery. Ben, as you say, is a Reagan-loving conservative who has a Ronald Reagan doll on his bookshelf. His political sophistication and ambition grabbed us.

I think it was also a happy accident that the main drama of "Boys State" really pits these two ideologies and viewpoints against each other, because that is the national conversation.

It seemed to me the film is as much a chronicle of a mock electoral process as it is a study of modern masculinity, including what some might call toxic masculinity. Did you have any realizations about gender identity as you worked on this production?

McBAINE: How could I not? I was the only woman in a room of 1,100 17-year-old boys.

We went to the program with questions about the health of our democracy and hyperpolarization, and how it's affecting the next generation. But then, once we got there, we saw we had this incredible window into boyhood circa 2018, circa #MeToo, circa conversations about toxic masculinity.

I immediately recognized that I brought a certain amount of preconception to how that group was grappling with this, and what I was going to see. I expected that I was going to see "Lord of the Flies" and pandemonium and machismo — and I did see that. I also saw this range of masculinity that I hadn't anticipated, mostly notably in Steven: empathic leadership, listening, hunger for conversation and compromise.

"Boys State" directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss.Courtesy of Apple

Ultimately, I think the biggest surprise for me was how emotional the week was. We saw a lot of crying. I really had to question my own thoughts on what masculinity is — which I think is a powerful reason I make documentaries, because I want to force myself to question myself.

I was especially fascinated by the evolution of Robert, who presents himself to the other kids as an anti-abortion hard-liner but, in a remarkable scene, privately confesses to the camera that he is pro-choice.

MOSS: Robert hasn't really decided who he is, what he stands for, or how he's going to conduct himself. I think for us to be privy to that inner wrestling match was really unexpected and fascinating. Initially when we met him, he seemed like he had stumbled out of "Dazed and Confused." He was a handsome, happy-go-lucky kid with a lot of confidence.

We knew he was smart and complicated. We just weren't entirely sure until he confessed to us that he was actually not being fully truthful about his views as a method of political calculation.

Steven, despite his humbleness, had an inner self-confidence. Robert, despite his outward self-confidence, was really quite less settled about himself. I think the degree to which these young men came to know themselves in this intense week was really unexpected for us.

The mock election at the heart of the film is genuinely riveting and surprising, so I don't want to give too much away to our readers. But suffice to say, the film follows kids whose intentions are noble and other kids who do things many viewers might find unsavory. Did you come away from this experience feeling more hopeful or more fearful about the rising generation of political aspirants?

McBAINE: [Laughs.] We both walked out of this program feeling a little bit of both, but mostly hopeful, honestly, because I think watching two of our kids in particular navigate this environment was so inspiring.

The kids' level of engagement is exciting. I don't remember being quite as politically activated at the age of 17. They know so much about politics and they're so eager to engage, partly because they're inheriting a world that's got some issues. It's exciting to be reminded that you need that kind of energy when democracy is in such a fragile state.

René Otero and other Texas Boys State participants in "Boys State," premiering globally Aug.14 on Apple TV Plus.Courtesy Apple

MOSS: I think that's right. We see two young men of color — Steven and René — come into this space, which is quite conservative and predominantly white, and put themselves out there. We see the electorate rise to support them. We see Steven summon their better angels. We see René elected chairman of the [fictional] Nationalists party.

We see them negotiate that space while keeping their politics and integrity, and it mirrors the struggles we see now and have seen forever in this country. They reach success that was substantial enough for us to be encouraged. To meet young people with such a sense of themselves, and of moral leadership, was deeply encouraging.

The film wouldn't be honest if we didn't encounter and display some of the dark side that we all know is around us everywhere in politics — and no surprise, we see it at Boys State.

We are reminded that even in this unlikely corner of Texas, there is a space where people of different politics come together. They might sometimes disagree vehemently, but they're still able to talk to each other civilly and find common ground. That, perhaps, isn't something we see much of anywhere else, and that's a really hopeful message.

McBAINE: The legislature at Texas Boys State in 2018 voted for a universal background check bill — in Texas! — which is not something Washington has done. That's where I get my hope.