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Review: High schoolers take on politics in engaging 'Boys State'

Documentary looks at a week-long political camp for teens and shows the ways it mirrors the real thing

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The good, the bad and the ugly of American politics are laid out in "Boys State," a fun, eye-opening documentary that acts as a microcosm of our political system. 

Directors Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss turn their cameras on Boys State, which is like summer camp for budding politicians. It's a week-long program where 1,000 young candidates, mostly high school juniors, come together and erect a political system from the ground up, splitting into parties, running for office and deciding on leaders through a series of mock elections. 

Steven Garza in "Boys State."

It's a well-intentioned process — it's sponsored by the American Legion and dates back to the 1930s, and every state has a program (there's a separate course for girls) — that offers a crash course in how politics work. The end result of "Boys State" is not so much a wake-up call, since even the most idealistic among us knows the system is seriously flawed, but rather a window into how politics are the way they are.

Early on, attendees — who are put through an interview process to be chosen to attend the program — are split into two parties, the Nationalists and the Federalists. It's on them to organize, decide on their party platforms and elect representatives. The highest office is governor, but there are positions at all levels, and there's even a press corps for candidates to help get the word out. 

Sounds innocent, right? Well, these kids are already savvy to the political process, and know the compromises, the pandering and the truth-shaving it takes to win an election.

Take Robert McDougall. He's a Texas bro who gives an impassioned campaign speech in his run for governor where he discusses his firm pro-life beliefs, reciting statistics about the number of adoptive parents waiting for children to call their own. Later, in an interview with McBaine and Moss' cameras, he tells them flat-out he's pro-choice. "Sometimes you gotta say what you gotta say in an attempt to win," McDougall says. "Sometimes you can't win on what you believe in your heart." 

McDougall's opposition for the office of governor is Steven Garza, who still does hold some beliefs of his own and isn't ready to trade them in just yet. McDougall hits the stage with jokes about his anatomy and thinks that's going to win over the rowdy crowd with humor, but the unpolished Garza speaks from his heart and reaches a lot more voters through his sincerity. McDougall and Garza are the yin and yang of American politics, and Garza's more measured approach — a tactic in itself — is yet another lesson in what resonates with an electorate. 

"Boys State" is rife with political lessons on mud-slinging, dirty campaigning and other tricks of the trade. When one race turns nasty, one of the players sums up the game. "You have to find divisive issues in order to differentiate yourself at all," he says. And in our current political system, he's right.

"Boys State" is a remarkable glimpse at the state of politics today. Is there hope? Sure, if you squint. But there are a lot of hurdles to jump over first. 

'Boys State'

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13: for some strong language, and thematic elements

Running time: 109 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama